As with all leadership styles, finding the right fit takes time. It continues to evolve as your business needs and team grows. You adapt with feedback and experience, and make it your own in time. It’s no different with co-leadership. This Power Read seeks to offer an introduction to a model that remains relatively rare in practice, and ways to get started if it sounds like a leadership style you’d like to explore. You’ll also see examples and anecdotes from my experience as a co-leader, which I hope serve as starting points for you to build your foundations.
In this model, leadership responsibilities are shared among two equal partners. It’s a lot like marriage or life partnerships in that sense, where you and your co-leader are united as a team. As co-leaders, you’re partners-in-crime. You’ll have someone you trust to spar with, to learn different perspectives from, to be your sounding board – something rare in increasingly senior positions.
You also become each other's mentors. You get the chance to teach and learn from each other. One of things I’ve especially appreciated is always having someone in my corner. On occasions when my confidence wanes, encouragement from my co-leader offers a boost that keeps me motivated and empowered to achieve our goals.
From an organization’s standpoint, the co-leadership model exemplifies the saying ‘one plus one equals more than two.’ With co-leaders, the organization gets to draw on the best of both individuals to drive better decisions to improve the quality and speed of work.
For example, my co-lead and I are of different genders and come from very different cultural backgrounds. While we both have a background in Finance, we specialize in different areas. The diversity widens our perspectives in analyzing and making decisions. Co-leadership gives us, and the organization, the chance to draw on our understanding of and perspectives from Latin America and Germany. Our experiences in sales and corporate functions respectively help us to better understand business and stakeholder needs as we shape solutions.
There are many co-leadership models to adopt. To decide what works for you, return to why you’re using this model to begin with. For example, as co-leaders you could delegate responsibilities so that you each take charge of matters specific to your strengths. Or you could also be ‘substitutes’ for each other, the model my partner and I chose, where your co-leader could jump in at a moment’s notice to assist in your place.
Some background: my current role wasn’t initially intended as a co-leadership position. I was excited when I was first offered the position as it was a role I had deep respect for and it presented an opportunity to grow in security – a field that was new to me at the time. But the role also meant that I would be responsible for two time zones at once. At that point in my life, my priorities had shifted. While I continued to have ambitious career plans, finding balance was also important as I was a new mum to a one-year-old. Taking on the role as a sole leader would mean I would not be able to give my best at work or at home.
I lobbied hard for co-leadership as it offered the opportunity to balance my career ambitions with my goals as a parent. There are, as mentioned, many ways to shape the partnership, but for my case we chose to be ‘substitutes’ for each other. My co-leader and I chose to be completely on top of each other’s responsibilities and were ready to step in to cover one another, even without creating a separate handover list. As such, when unexpected childcare matters inevitably surfaced, I was able to commit to being there for my child at a moment’s notice. Likewise, when my partner needed cover, he knew that I would focus on getting things done at work.
Finding your own style of leadership takes time. If you’re interested to see if the co-leadership model may be for you, the three questions below would help you assess whether your organization, potential co-leader, and you yourself are ready to adopt this model.
Are You Willing to Share the Limelight?
While there may be slow shifts in mindsets, most professional settings continue to reward individuals. You may have been conditioned to believe that this might be the only way to advance professionally. Taking a step away from this to co-lead therefore takes quite a bit of unlearning.
Be honest: How willing are you to be that vulnerable and open with your partner? Are you ready to trust someone else to have such a key role in driving your career? Whether it’s obtaining visibility from higher management or staying in-sync on daily matters, you need to be okay with a relatively intense level of communication. Without being able to do so, the benefits to this model are moot.
Do You Respect Your Potential Partner?
You need to really trust your partner for co-leadership to work. While you can never really know your co-leader completely, mutual respect helps you to find your way back when either party shows unexpected behaviour. My co-leader and I had the advantage of knowing each other before taking on this partnership. We had the benefit of a relatively strong foundation of trust and respect before reinforcing it through working together as co-leaders.
This said, I’d wager that co-leadership could work as long as both parties are invested in building trust. If you’re thinking of co-leading with someone new to you, take the time to suss them out to see if your values truly align. Be sure to ask for concrete examples in which they demonstrate these values. For instance, previous examples of how they dealt with unexpected challenges or steps they took to resolve conflicts. Again, you can never fully know another person. But these stories offer a way for you, if nothing else, to practice having open conversations and a starting point to see if you might be a good fit.
Is Your Organization Open to New Ideas?
Co-leadership remains a relatively rare model, and you’ll need to make the case to higher management to show why it’s worth taking the risk. You’ll need to show them what they stand to gain from taking a step away from the status quo. My current position as co-leader was new, and it took a fair bit of lobbying to persuade key stakeholders – even in an organization that valued innovation and was anchored in a relatively high level of trust.
Take time to audit your organization’s values. If efforts to champion transformation have been nothing more than lip service, or if most teams function in relatively toxic environments, think twice about trying to make co-leadership work in this instance. Even if you and your co-leader make a dream team, any impact you make – if at all – would be minimal if no one is open to change.
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Co-COO, Global Security