The writer is author of ‘The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live’
I have written the majority of my books as a co-author. But when the two of us first told our editor we planned to write together, she had a knowing look that said: “Who’s going to tell them that this won’t work?”
But she soon bought into the idea once we started delivering chapters. We complement each other, with our joint values and mission. Four books later, it is not only working — it is a thriving creative model for us. There’s nothing better than having someone to brainstorm with, to have your back in meetings, to share the wins or cheer you up when things go wrong. As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And I very much believe that.
Conventional wisdom says two heads are better than one and when it comes to leading a business, the idea of co-chief executives is appealing: double the expertise, diversity of thought and future-proofing. Some companies — including streaming company Netflix and eyewear retailer Warby Parker — have adopted this unconventional leadership style.
So, too, has Belu, a social enterprise that provides drinks to the hospitality industry and gives its net profits to the charity WaterAid. Six months into her tenure as chief executive of Belu, Natalie Campbell split the role between her and a colleague Charlotte Harrington. “I joined three weeks before we went into a national lockdown,” says Campbell. “I spent a lot of time with Charlotte, my COO at the time. She’d been in the business five years [and] her insight was invaluable as we went through the journey of designing our 10-year strategy.
“It felt like we were co-founders,” she adds. “Ultimately we were creating a new business because the Belu pre-pandemic was not going to be the Belu we would come out with . . . We knew that the world of hospitality would be fundamentally different.”
Campbell says her approach was inspired by “shine theory”. The term, coined by friends and co-authors Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, is a “commitment to collaborating with rather than competing against other people — especially other women”.
The board did not automatically get it. One director enquired why she “would want to demote herself”, and others asked about what would happen if something went wrong. But Campbell worked through this: both she and Harrington have defined roles and responsibilities — she deals with aspects such as the UK recovery and HR, while Harrington leads on finance and international growth — and they had already assessed the reality of how it was going to work. “I’ve always believed that if you lead a company, you should experiment and you should try things that mean you can be a vanguard in how you operate,” Campbell adds.
Like all relationships, being co-leaders requires effort, trust and constant communication. Campbell and Harrington went on a journey of understanding and getting to know each other (virtually, which comes with its own challenges). “We did a lot of work on our shadow sides [strengths and weaknesses] and being that vulnerable with someone so quickly was key, effectively saying, ‘Here are all of my vulnerabilities’,” says Campbell.
When it comes to implementing the model, Campbell’s advice is: “As long as you’re in a business that has people in it, it’s emotional. People need to emotionally buy into whatever journey you’re taking them on.”
Campbell and Harrington spent a few months acting in the role of co-leaders before telling anyone, making sure they were comfortable informing the board. Then, once the board was happy with the idea, Campbell and Harrington told the team.
Can such power-sharing arrangements succeed? There is limited research on whether the shared leadership model is a superior one, and there are many examples where it hasn’t worked, Oracle and Salesforce for example. Yet the average tenure of co-CEOs — four and a half years — is only slightly shorter than for single leaders.
And the truth is, being a chief executive is lonely and the pressure to show up as this all-seeing eye could increasingly become an unrealistic and outdated model in today’s complex business landscape.