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The word collaboration is big these days in business. So is the term partners. Even in academia, where academics traditionally toiled in isolation, collaboration is prominent: A research paper with a solitary author is becoming a rarity; three or four writers sharing the burden is common.

So with all this teamwork, why not co-CEOs? Or if not co-CEOs, why not co-heads of marketing, co-chiefs of human resources, or co-leaders of various units and departments within those fiefdoms? For all our talk of collaboration, it seems we can’t get past a deeply ingrained notion that leadership must be singular – one person ultimately responsible and making the decisions.

John Gerzema and Will Johnson argue times have evolved. They have benefitted from being co-CEOs of a company, the Harris Poll, and argue as business becomes more complex and organizations bigger, we need to change. “The truth is the archetype of the omnipotent CEO – the lone commander atop the corporate pyramid – is increasingly a relic of 20th-century management thinking,” they write in Harvard Business Review. “The modern business landscape is too fast-moving and the demands on a CEO have become too innumerable for a single person to set an organization’s strategic direction and oversee a multitude of internal decisions, all while acting as its public face to stakeholders.”

They note that while executive teams have doubled in size over the last three decades as different corporate functions have gained importance or have come into existence, the top job has largely remained a sole assignment. That may explain the failure of organizations to tackle all the priorities they should – not enough direction from the top or bandwidth to oversee properly.

This is important because it reverses the main argument against co-leaders: For clarity, mammoth organizations need one person at the top. Maybe mammoth organizations, for effectiveness, need more than one person at the top.

This can be extended, of course, beyond corporations. Is the federal government too large and complex for one person to be prime minister? Should we have seen co-leaders vying for our votes in the recent election? Might a university have co-principals? What about the volunteer group you are involved with?

My own experience as co-president of a national association, run by volunteers with just one staff member, was it was liberating to have a partner to bounce ideas off and share problems. Every leader, of course, has subordinates they can bounce ideas off and discuss problems. But it’s significantly different when you share the same rank and overall responsibility. It keeps you more accountable, limiting your power, while liberating you at the same time from solitary responsibility.

Did people try end runs around one of us, after we rebuffed an idea, and go to our “co?” Sure. But is that a bad thing? Indeed, if someone with a proposal thought they would get better reception from one of us and went to that person first, isn’t that more inviting and harmonious as long as we didn’t commit before talking to our “co?”

Why do we think one person has all the smarts and experience and people skills to run a large (or small) organization? So often we complain about the skills our boss lacks. What if they were paired with someone who had complementary skills?

Based on their previous experience working together, the Harris duo split up the job into areas where each excelled. After a long career in marketing and advertising, Mr. Gerzema tackled consumer insights, business development, strategic leadership, and marketing. Mr. Johnson was better prepared to handle business strategy, finance and operations, account management, and innovation. “Today, we still divide and conquer,” they write.

At multiple points in the day, they come together to offer each other counsel or focus together on a problem. They hold deep dives every two weeks on long-term issues, and most Fridays gather for a strategic discussion. It can be argued all this collaboration is wasteful, keeping them from meeting other people and implementing on their decisions. But at all levels of organizations, we often need to slow down the clock and take time to ponder and check our instincts. This builds it in.

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries recently offered support to the co-CEO idea on the website at INSEAD, where he is a professor of leadership development and organizational change: “Having two points of contact can be a very powerful thing, but only if everybody is crystal clear on who is doing what. At times, finalizing a decision may require some healthy, but time-consuming debate between the pair. Even if both leaders have a solid relationship, disagreements will be inevitable. Narcissistic behaviour may come in the way of co-operation. If power struggles come to the fore, chaos can ensue.”

To succeed, he argues the co-leaders must agree on the mission and vision of the organization, which sounds obvious but top leaders in organizations are not always in sync. The reporting relationships and expected roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined or otherwise confusion can occur at the top and throughout the organization. Both co-leaders need to be held accountable for specific, measurable goals – some shared, some separate, but always complementary. At the same time, they should have sufficient latitude and power to make critical decisions in the areas they are accountable for.

He stresses that for co-leadership to work, interpersonal processes are even more important than those structural measures. “Dyads require soft skills, which are actually the hardest skills to maintain and measure as they are often intangible and hard to quantify,” he writes.

The message we get every day is that leadership is singular – one person at the head of each organization and each unit within it. But in a collaborative and complex world, maybe it’s time to become plural.

Cannonballs

  • Consultant Cali Yost recommends not approaching “back to the office” as a light switch you will turn on (or off again, if events require it). Instead see on-site work as something to be dial up or down as realities allow, with plenty of notice to employees.
  • Executive coach Dan Rockwell suggests lowering your intensity if you want to build an ownership culture amongst your staff. High-energy leaders tend to get involved too quickly and solve problems for others too frequently. When you step in, they step out.
  • Here’s a good question executive coach Kristin Hendrix says you should ask people: “What do you know that I don’t know yet, that is relevant to the decision we are making or the conversation we are having?”

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