Joint-CEOs – Evolutionary Leadership or Disaster Waiting to Happen?

In the wake of the dissolution of a prominent joint-CEO leadership structure of one of South Africa’s top blue chip corporations, I was asked to comment on whether it (the joint head model) works or not.

A loaded question, with no clear-cut answers.

One thing’s for sure, though. There are always raised eyebrows when a joint-CEO structure is proposed, mostly because it challenges the age-old notion that the overall accountability for an organisation should reside with one individual.

The traditional, conventional approach is that a board should appoint one leader who is the ‘whole package’; conversely, if two people are appointed, each of them is then deemed somewhat deficient in some way.

What is not given due regard is the respective skills, capacity and experience of each leader and that, in fact, joint-stewardship may leverage the exceptional elements of each one, enhancing the overall leadership capacity and the organisation itself.

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ works well in the context of dual-leadership.

Sole leadership is certainly simpler. No need for ‘portfolio’ clarity (who is responsible for what), no need to ensure that the working relationship between in the joint-heads is both robust and congenial, no confusion around accountability for performance, and which throat to choke if there’s failure in any domain of the organisation.

An organisational structure with joint-CEOs is undoubtedly more complex. It can, however, be hugely successful. (South Africa’s Standard Bank and its co-leadership being a case in example).

A large, multi-faceted organisation can leverage and receive tremendous value from the different, complimentary skills of the joint-heads. It provides an in-built succession plan (one of the big headaches that a board has with a single CEO at the helm), and it can support greater governance and reduce risk.

The potential downside, if decision-making processes are not streamlined, is that it can also reduce organisational effectiveness and the ‘right’ kind of risk-taking in the form of innovation.

Should the co-heads not be compatible and have a history of working together well, joint-leadership at this level can be an absolute disaster. It takes two very self-aware, high-EQ, collaborative-style leaders to co-habit at the helm. And ongoing coaching throughout their tenure.

So does it work, is it recommended, and should more companies consider it?

For the right reasons, with the right leaders, joint-CEOs could become the new norm.


– Debbie Goodman-Bhyat

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