Can Twitter (and Your Association) Use a Co-CEO?

In extremely disruptive times, two top leaders can potentially share the burden and offer a model for collaboration.


Is Elon Musk exactly the kind of CEO Twitter needs, or is he speedily running it into the ground? Parsing the various factors involved in that question—leadership style, technological savvy, matters of profitability—is too much to address in this small space. But the too much part is kind of the point. Setting aside all the armchair quarterbacking about what’s been going on with Twitter as a product and as a company in the weeks since Musk took over the company, what’s clear is that the CEO role at Twitter is an especially big job. And perhaps it shouldn’t be the job of one person.

(Note: I’m filing this on Friday morning, when the company’s stability has become increasingly tenuous. Everything above could be moot as you read this, but everything below is still relevant.)

Co-leadership is one idea that former T-Mobile executive John Legere floated last week, suggesting directly to Musk on Twitter that he be asked to help carry the leadership load at the company. Legere proposed that he be hired to “run” Twitter, freeing Musk to “support product/technology.” Musk bluntly replied, “no,” arguing that the company needed a “technologist.”

Checks and balances decrease the risk of poor decisions, and two leaders improve innovation.

But if you believe that the company needs more than a technologist—and that some organizations do have complex structures—splitting duties can make sense. In a recent article for CEOWorld, EY Canada’s Lance Mortlock and Karun Gautam made an argument for that leadership structure. It’s rare, to be sure: As they note, only eight companies in the Fortune 500 have co-CEOs. But it “could be valuable in industries or specific circumstances where a company may experience rapid growth, change, and disruption, or a high volume of transaction activity,” they write.

That situation may sound familiar to Musk. It may also sound familiar in the association world, where post-pandemic disruption is endemic, and where co-CEO structures aren’t unheard-of. One point that Mortlock and Gautam make is that the structure is responsive to the kind of environment more leaders are speaking out about—better work-life balance, more equitable management, stronger communication across an organization. If an organization wants to demonstrate that it supports collaboration in the workplace, and if “tone from the top” matters, a co-CEO arrangement has a lot of virtues.

But the structure can do more than just serve as a symbol. The authors point to research suggesting that “checks and balances decrease the risk of poor decisions, and two leaders improve innovation as they can stress-test new ideas to ensure that all bases are covered.” Co-CEO arrangements can also allow separate leaders to emphasize their particular strengths, ensuring that critical initiatives get the attention they deserve, they write. (This was effectively the argument Legere was making.) In addition, they can help improve leadership succession planning.

The big hurdle to accomplishing all this, of course, is trust. It was the most essential factor cited by the association co-CEOs I spoke with in 2013, and it’s emphasized by Mortlock and Gautam as well. “Trust must be established to make decisions that align with the company’s goals,” they write. And they point to a handful of other trust-related issues that are essential to making the arrangement work: a plan to resolve conflicts, a willingness to set egos aside, and an environment of regular communication, both internally and externally. 

None of which is a guarantee that the arrangement will succeed. But go-it-alone, charismatic-leader approaches don’t have great track records either. Whatever it is that stabilizes Twitter, it won’t be a function of personality alone. Even Elon Musk’s.

Does your association have a co-CEO arrangement? Share your experiences in the comments.

(hapabapa/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By 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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