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Is Having Joint CEOs a Viable Model for Companies or Asking for Disaster?

Joint CEOs of Salesforce Marc Benioff and Keith G. Block

Oracle,, Whole Foods, and Samsung—what do all these four giant companies have in common? Apart from being internationally known brands, these industry leaders are governed by the rare existence of joint CEOs. Across all industries, CEOs are thought of as singular authority figures who champion their own companies.

When we say CEO, we think of Mark Zuckerberg, Indra Nooyi, Jeff Bezos, Ginni Rometty, Elon Musk, Mary Barra and Satya Nadella—leaders who don’t share their company positions with another person. However, in some companies, two leaders sharing the same post contribute to their success. But is it the way to go?

Lindred Leura Greer Discusses Joint CEO and Dual-Leader Setup
Lindred Greer Standford Graduate School of Business

Can a Company Have More than One CEO?

Co-leadership isn’t a brand new idea. Various corporations and even startups have been employing this leadership model to innovate how companies operate throughout the hierarchy. Companies such as Research in Motion, American Financial Group, Birchbox, and KKR & Co. attribute their success to this joint CEO management model.

There are some reasons why this co-CEO model works for some companies. First, they acknowledge that a CEO’s job has a vast coverage and is impossible to fulfill by just one person. CEOs usually have a hand in strategies taken by every department in their companies—a duty which could be difficult to be on top of. Companies with this leadership model allow its co-CEOs to divide and conquer responsibilities, covering more ground than just one person ever can.

Author of “The CEO Within” and Professor at Harvard Business School, Joseph L. Bower says, “If one CEO is on a global tour of facilities, the other can deal with the government at home. It also increases the range of talents in the box. A visionary can be complemented by a hands-on operator.”

The Pros of Having Joint CEOs

Having two CEOs would also imply that a company is adopting values of diversity and inclusion, where multiple perspectives on certain issues are welcome. This proposition helps generate and flesh out clear and concrete ideas that benefit everyday operations.

a photo quote by Joseph L. Bower in the discussion of having joint CEOs in a company
Joseph L. Bower on the idea of having joint CEOs

Having two at the helm of the company means more eyes to check on the organization’s weaknesses and strengths. If the partnership also proves to be dynamic and complementary, one CEO could make up for what the other lacks in terms of expertise and management style.

Joint CEOs could work—it actually makes sense for many corporations and startups. However, it takes a lot of patience and willpower to make the partnership work as smoothly as it possibly can.

The Downside of Joint CEOs

Nonetheless, no matter how highly capable or in sync co-CEOs can be, two CEOs mean essentially two separate egos. Having two separate people with two personalities and perspectives, and who most probably say different things can be the root of competitiveness, mismanagement, and miscommunication.

When two people share the same position, power struggles always seems inevitable. Each one may come in on unequal footing—in terms of salary, clout, expectations, expertise—and this could cause someone to rise and the other to fall back. They may step on each other’s toes trying to make quick decisions for the company or have differing opinions of strategic direction.

If one CEO falls short, he or she may feel disenfranchised from the other and the rest of the company. Both can become paranoid or fearful of each other, or even resentful towards one another. These joint CEOs can be the source of work misalignment.

More Significant Cons of Having Joint CEOs

In assessing the situation, the co-CEO model could veritably cause a lot of confusion to the rest of the company and customers. Middle managers and staff members may have difficulty determining who to report to; customers would find it confusing who to talk to. Co-CEOs may not always confer with one another to align what they know and what they should do. Plus, if one CEO is more visible or holds more deciding power, this creates an imbalance at the top level, which will eventually trickle down to rank-and-file.

Co-founder and CEO of Zenger Folkman—an organization that provides high-impact strengths-based leadership development and corporate training to different businesses and industries—, John H. “Jack” Zenger, D.B.A. clearly points out a huge con when he said “…one person is going to be held primo and the other person is going to play a secondary role. To me, it seems like it raises an unnecessary set of issues that aren’t really sustainable in the long run.”

a photo quote by John H. Zenger in the discussion of having joint CEOs in a company
John H. Zenger on the notion of having joint CEOs

Undoubtedly, having two experts in one position is quite redundant and can be a point of contention—financially and strategically. Significant decision-making at the top level is usually a solitary activity. Reaching a clear consensus or a unanimous decision on major strategies, solutions, and plans for the company with another person can become tedious. It can also cause the business to slow down or even miss great opportunities.

A Moot Point

Companies with co-CEOs may have struck gold in some cases but there are plenty of other examples of the experiment failing. People who work so in sync, and at such high positions, are difficult to find. However, people who have achieved a high level of success usually have egos to manage and protect. Thus, knowing that another person is occupying the exact same spot can be a threatening notion.

In reality, companies with joint CEOs usually find failure in the model because it requires a different level of commitment and trust, and a shared set of values and goals for it to work. They must work complementarily, know when to compromise, and always keep a balanced and united front—a best case scenario rarely achieved.

The Bold Bottomline on the Matter

Joint CEOs may not be a sustainable model for most companies, and rightly so. There are already countless aspects within the company that may need extra attention—and being experimental with the org chart isn’t one of them.

Hence, the bold and better move, we believe, is that having one CEO is, most of the time—if not all the time—the better option. Once a company has found and placed the best person for the position, everything that makes up a well-oiled and growing business will follow.

After all, as Theodore Roosevelt once aptly said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

If you already have that kind of CEO, there would be no need for another one.


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