Are Two Heads Better Than One??

Are Two Heads Better Than One??

Co-leading is more difficult than leading. Co-leading can also be richer, more productive, and rewarding than single leadership. Twenty-first century organizations are increasingly going to require co-leadership skills from their leaders. Leaders may be asked to occupy more permanent positions they will co-lead or jointly oversee important projects and initiatives. Companies such as Citi, PwC, Chipotle Mexican Grill, J.M. Smucker, Martha Steward Living Omnimedia, Primerica, Whole Foods Market, and Amway have all had co-leaders. However, few leaders are prepared and trained by their organizations to co-lead.  Co-leading requires each party to take on a mindset and leadership presence that is suited for the role. Conversations and experiences with co-leaders points to the following critical competencies for successful co-leadership:

  1. Self-awareness and Humility – Successful co-leaders spend time in reflection and are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. In coaching, I have noticed that the diagnostic instruments I use for these leaders often result in similar conclusions on how they describe themselves. In addition, these leaders have the humility to acknowledge and to ask for help. Conversely, many leaders have difficulty in exhibiting vulnerability and humility. They seem to equate an honest assessment of their weaknesses with a recipe for others to take advantage of them. Experience has shown the opposite. The leaders that I have worked with who have acknowledged their less developed leadership skills and asked for help, experienced an abundance of work and personal/emotional support.
  2. Agreement of Authority and Roles – Once the leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses it is vital that they establish clear roles and responsibilities that leverage their respective strengths. As Bill McDermott, co-CEO of technology giant SAP said, “One plus one can equal three.” His partner, Jim Hagermann Snabe, agrees. “Bill and I have different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives,” Snabe says. “He has spent most of his career in the field with customers and running businesses for four global brands, and I’ve spent quite some time managing the development of our business software. We play to our strengths.”
  3. Higher Vision– Successful co-leaders are aligned on the vision and destination of their organizations, and actively use it as a “North Star” to inform their decision making.  For example, in our organization our north star is “We aim to fill the unique space in our industry where our clients and employees trust and respect us completely.” This may seem obvious. However, we have noted that very few consultancies in our space have achieved this. There are many firms that are trusted and liked, and others that are competent, perform, and are therefore respected.  Few are trusted and respected completely. This requires the three of us who lead the firm to set aside our personal preferences and make decisions, (at times gut wrenching ones), in the service of our North Star.  As with any leadership team, our record has not been perfect.  On the few occasions when we have allowed our personal agendas and pet passions over rule our north star thinking, we have paid the price. A great example from the corporate world comes from the failed co-leadership of Sandy Weill and John Reed following the merger of Traveler’s and Citigroup.  As Sandy Weill said, reflecting on the experience. “I think we honestly believed…but it didn’t end up that way at all. We were driving the people who worked for us crazy and not making decisions, or making decisions they did not understand. Eventually, one of our senior managers at a management meeting [said] something about this, and that became the cry that led us to having to share a board meeting to make the decision that we needed one North Star. There had to be one North Star, and we had two North Stars.”
  4. Camaraderie – Outstanding co-leaders spend a good deal of time of getting to know one another as people and establish a personal connection with one another. They seem to have a feel for each other’s thinking, tendencies, and likes and dislikes. They can improvise in the heat of the battle much like a jazz band when required because they have an intuitive understanding of their partner’s likely reactions. Most importantly, they genuinely enjoy spending time with one another, respect each other, and take an interest in the personal fulfillment and development of their partner. This last point, according to Katzenbach and Smith, the renowned authors of “The Wisdom of Teams,”is what distinguishes a “high performance team.”1
  5. Learning Mindset – Co-leaders believe in continuous learning and growth. They establish an early working norm that sees experience as a precursor to learning and continuous growth. These leaders do not favor gamesmanship that tries to hide mistakes or poor outcomes from one another.  Instead, they actively share their experiences with one another and solicit feedback and advice from their trusted thought partner(s).
  6. United Support – it is critical that co-leaders develop norms and a process for resolving differences of opinion in private and present a united front to the outside world. Andy and Amy Heyward are married, and co-leaders of A Squared Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based provider of children’s entertainment programs competing with Disney, Nickelodeon, and others. In reflection on their collaboration, Andy said “Running the company is like parenting. People here understand that they can’t go to one of us, and if they don’t like the answer, go to the other. There is no court of appeals.”

One of the most powerful examples that demonstrates how all of these come together is at Sony Pictures Entertainment, described in the New York Times article by Tim Arango titled “Sony’s version of Tracy and Hepburn” dated December 24th 2009.

The article describes the relationship and experiences of Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton in co-leading Sony Pictures Entertainment.  Mr. Lynton, a former AOL executive, had to check his ego after he thought he had been offered the job alone, while Ms. Pascal had to overcome her resentment and disappointment at not being given the chance to step up to this role after a long tenure with the studio. The idea of combining their talents originated with Howard Stringer, their supervisor. Mr. Stringer believed that while Ms. Pascal’s strength was in her intuitive ability to pick films, the organization also needed an outsider who had the knowledge and experience with the changing media environment, brought on by new digital technologies and to help Sony expand internationally. He also valued Mr. Lynton’s financial acumen and ability to minimize risk.

The combination of their talents paid immediate dividends.  In 2006, Sony released “The Da Vinci Code,” with revenues of $1.7 billion domestically, and had one of its best years. In the first quarter of 2009, revenue rose 6.5 percent, compared with a loss a year earlier.

Since getting to know one another, they allow each of their strengths to showcase itself at the appropriate moment.  As the article points out, “After reading ‘Superbad,’ a Seth Rogen comedy released in 2007, Mr. Lynton said he didn’t understand the humor, while Ms. Pascal said she thought it would ‘be fantastic and an anthem for this generation.’ But because the investment risk was so low, he relented. Amy said,You know what, you’ve just got to go with me on this one.’ Mr. Lynton added that the movie was of the type that is ‘never going to make sense on a piece on a paper.’  Ms. Pascal’s instinct was dead-on. ‘Superbad’ cost about $18 million to make, and it generated about $120 million at the domestic box office, according to BoxOfficeMojo, which tracks ticket sales.”

It was not always a smooth journey.  However, by being able to elevate the conversation to a higher level, Mr. Springer was able to convince them to spend time to get to know one another.  In so doing, they developed a deep respect for each other’s talents, and camaraderie and friendship. The ultimate prize came when Ms. Pascal came upon the hours of rehearsal tape left by Michael Jackson after his death.  She quickly recommended buying up the cache for $60 million for exclusive move rights.  This strategy resulted in an amazing payoff when the film “This Is It” became a block buster.

  1.  Katzenbach JR, Smith DK. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 1993.

Questions for Online Conversation:

  • Have you been party to, or experienced co-leadership?
  • If so, what was your experience? What worked? What didn’t?
  • How would you co-lead?



About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

One Response to Are Two Heads Better Than One??

  1. Matt Kersey says:

    My observation of co-leadership is that it can be very difficult to achieve in larger organizations that have evolved and morphed through mergers and acquisitions. Of the qualities listed in your post, I find that genuine “Camaraderie” is very difficult to realize. Getting to know one another well is hampered by the pressure and demands to meet ever increasing business challenges that limit the time one has to interact with ones co-leader. Often, organizations do not invest the time and effort it takes to bring new team members together to focus on the interdependencies and shared objectives that would foster the building of relationships and, eventually, high performance teams.

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