The co-CEO: can two heads be better than one?

Having double the experience and inspiration is making the co-chief executive an attractive model for some companies, but can it really achieve more than the typical way of doing business?

Less than three months into their new roles as co-CEOs of Jungle Creations, Melissa Chapman and Nat Poulter are convinced sharing the hot seat is a winning formula and that more companies will catch on.

The UK media company has joined the ranks of businesses worldwide, such as Roleshare, iSupply Energy and Octopus Ventures, with the perhaps quirky common denominator of a co-CEO set-up. 

COVID has changed the way we work so much already. With businesses like ours breaking with tradition, I see more companies moving in this direction,” says Poulter. 

Together with Chapman, he has been transitioning into the co-CEO role over the past year, jointly navigating a revenue and profit jump of 38 per cent and impressive 342 per cent respectively.

The concept has clear appeal: double the foresight, expertise and, of course, time and energy, offering the ability to drive a company forward at breakneck pace. There’s also an argument for it helping address gender imbalances at the highest level.

But can it work for any company and what challenges must be dealt with for the pair to be greater than the sum of their parts?

A level of reach and diversity beyond one person

Roleshare, a job share partner matching website run by husband and wife co-CEO team Sophie and Dave Smallwood, is hoping to fill more leadership positions using this model. They’ve just partnered with the Global Network of People Living with HIV, a non-profit specifically looking to appoint two people to their most senior director position, the equivalent of a corporate CEO.

“Because it’s a sensitive subject requiring strategic alliances and connections globally, the organisation wants a level of reach and diversity you wouldn’t get from just one person,” explains Sophie.

From both Roleshare and Jungle Creations’ perspectives, the extended breadth and scope that can be derived from two people leading a business is clear.

“It’s such a large role that requires so much, there’s no way I’d be able to do this by myself,” adds Sophie, who leads on marketing, while Dave drives operations, with sales, fundraising and product development a joint effort. “There’s a whole aspect of the role Dave does that I just wouldn’t be able to get to. It’s so big it does require two people.”

As Jungle Creations’ Poulter points out, the company’s four differentiated revenue streams are essentially like four different businesses, so “having different skillsets to operate these makes sense”.

Echoing Sophie’s point, there often “still aren’t enough hours in the day” to be as hands on and strategic as the role requires, notes Chapman, who alongside Poulter runs individual departments, teams and related budgets, while building strategy and making key decisions together. 

“We feel it’s important for us to be involved in the day-to-day goings on across the various parts of our business, which would frankly be impossible for one person,” she says.

Are co-CEOs paving the way for female business leaders?

The potential to boost numbers of female CEOs is something the Roleshare team believes should be another key driver for businesses looking to appoint co-CEOs.

Sophie argues it can help buck the trend of women not applying for roles because they don’t meet 100 per cent of the criteria, compared with men who are more likely to apply even if they only meet 60 per cent. 

“From a diversity perspective, that’s really important for me,” she says. “Aligning with Dave as my co-CEO has given me the courage to pursue this type of endeavour. It’s the same in previous roles I’ve had, where perhaps I didn’t apply for a more senior position that seemed really interesting, but I was too hard on myself about whether I could do it, even though I had most of the skills they were looking for.

“If I had to apply for a senior leadership role today, and saw I met a lot of the description, but then I’d be matched with somebody else, I would feel much more confident.” 

However, the argument doesn’t resonate with Chapman, who doesn’t see the connection between a co-CEO role being more accessible or suitable for a woman. 

“I couldn’t predict if co-CEOs will be a route to fixing the inequality that exists at the highest level in many businesses,” she says. “It still depends on decision-makers removing their gender bias to appoint women into the roles they deserve, either solo or as part of a co-CEO model, when it best suits the business.”

Where co-CEOs have failed

But do the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to co-CEOs? The model has been trialled and abandoned by both software firm SAP and tyremaker Pirelli that reverted to the status quo after just six months. According to SAP, the clarity of a single CEO structure would help it best to recover and grow post-pandemic.

Consultants Steve Hyde and Charlie Crowe agree, unsold by the case for co-CEOs. “In a shared situation, you’ve diluted the authority of the CEO,” says Crowe. 

For Hyde, CEO of 360xec Executive Search, customers and employees “expect to see a lot of the person that’s in the shop window, who is nearly always the CEO, so you don’t need two on that basis”. 

While Jungle’s Poulter acknowledges the power of the “genius CEO”, like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, he stands by his and Chapman’s appointment.

“Although there may have been times where a co-CEO set-up hasn’t worked, there are plenty more examples where an individual CEO hasn’t. There are businesses in our industry that have had almost as many CEOs as they’ve had years in operation,” he says.

Tips for co-CEO success

Consensus from Roleshare and Jungle is that success for co-CEOs is down to alignment, which can bridge differing personalities and approaches, and avoid a situation of one co-CEO trying to override or outshine the other.

“The main thing is communication and making sure you have a pre-agreed model for how you’re going to work, and a joint vision and values, or you can end up in a bad place,” says Dave. “As a company, it’s about how you can enable a better way of working for everyone. We’re serious about diversity and it’s at the core of why we’re standing up together as co-CEOs.”