How To Successfully Argue For A Co-CEO Role

Maybe you’ve heard of co-CEOing, two people sharing the same role at the top of an organization. Sure, some founding entrepreneurs are choosing to run their company as co-CEOs but so are others. It’s a small trend that some people are hoping will catch on. If you are searching for a stable governance model and persuasive arguments to a board of directors, there are good reasons to consider this approach.

I spoke with 2 co-CEOs about how they lead an organization together. Jocelyn Mackie and Dr. Karlee Silver are former executive clients of mine. They worked as colleagues for the past 6 years, much of time reporting directly to the CEO. I was introduced to them worked after I coached the CEO and founder who gave them the opportunity to grow and develop with a coach’s help. They now co-lead Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), an ambitious global innovation platform that has been securing low cost and high impact innovations.

If you want to share the CEO role for your organization, their experience can offer up a few persuasive arguments:

1. Good decisions come from divergent thinking. I’ve seen how more deliberate thinking happens when two equal voices work together to create better decisions. Bringing two heads together is even more vital now with the increased pressure to have a broader outlook and creative approach to solve problems.

2. Responsibilities are clearly defined. Jocelyn leads the operations, finance, communications and legal teams and Karlee leads the investment, programs, knowledge management and the innovation marketplace teams. Each works to her areas of experience and strength. There’s joint decision-making on strategic items of top importance to the organization which include strategy, board and primary funder relationships, and shaping organizational culture.

3. Shared and equal accountability. I believe co-CEO model could work without both individuals sharing accountability for the organization’s successes and failures.

4. Greater reach. You can be at 2 places at once with competing priorities because there are 2 of you.

5. A track record of collaborative decision making. Working together for years has groomed Jocelyn and Karlee to be receptive to one another’s ideas and willing to adjust their thinking so that they are reliably able to reach an agreement.

6. Sustainable working lives. In my experience, newly promoted leaders often seek to have work-life balance. Sharing the role means one unplugs over their vacation and family emergencies that come up, while the other takes charge. It’s seamless. The future of work is shifting towards alternative schedules to include life’s priorities, such as a healthy lifestyle and more time for family and friends.

7. It’s less stressful at the top. Having someone to share the burdens of strategy and fiscal responsibility could be less stressful on you.

8. Different backgrounds mean more expertise. Each have different backgrounds: law and business for one and science and programs for the other, which is beneficial for their organization. It’s a great advantage to have two CEOs with different backgrounds, because it’s a challenge for one person to go broad and sufficiently deep in what is demanded from a single CEO in this age of complexity and churn.

Because the co-CEO model hasn’t yet achieved widespread acceptance, people may contest that it can’t possibly work. That’s why it’s worth developing your positioning to address these challenges, too. Here are a number of objections and useful things to consider:

Objection: There will be confusion and chaos if there is no tie-breaker.
Consider: How will you make decisions when each of you has a different view?

Objection: Only someone who will do it all should assume the role.
Consider: Can you demonstrate confidence that you can do the role in its entirety but benefit the organization by having the two of you?

Objection: Collaboration is a nice idea, but only 1 person can fill the vital role of CEO.
Consider: Find other examples of where it’s worked and prepare success stories where collaboration won the day.

Objection: A CEO is always the leader out in front.
Consider: Leadership is multidimensional. Leaders operate not just out in front but in tandem with other leaders where the interplay of leading and following happens organically and authentically.

Objection: It will be twice as expensive to have 2 people in the role.
Consider: What smart economics can you identify to have two people occupy the role? Where are the efficiencies you can propose in the organizational design?

Two Women as Co-CEO’s

Having 2 women in the role is making a difference. Karlee regularly calls out the lack of gender mix on panels on the international stage and both want to work towards greater diversity in Grand Challenges Canada to reflect the people in the countries where they make a difference. They feel pride in innovating a collaborative model that positions the organization well for the future. In Canada, a women-led international development organization is in tune with the country’s feminist international assistance policy (FIAP) based on an understanding that women have unequal access to opportunities. Having two women lead an organization overall is viewed well.

You might want to consider the advantages of sharing the top role with someone else. For CEOs everywhere, the leader role is a lonely one. Two isn’t just far less lonely; it can also provide for more agility to have two senior leaders with distinct backgrounds get the best strategic thinking for your organization.

Thank you to Luke Schobert for the photo.