Is It Smart to Co-Lead Your Company?

co-leading CEOs

I was filling out an application recently when I had to designate my role in the company I co-founded with my husband, Lorne. It should have been an easy-breezy question, but the limited pick-a-title options left me stumped. Unofficially, we’re both involved in everything at guesterly. Sure, I spearhead marketing and sales efforts, and Lorne leads our software development, but most things pass back and forth for opinions and re-direction. Our desks are even set up in an L-shape, so we’re never more than a 90-degree head turn to comment on something. The focus we both put on strategy and priority-setting means we’re co-founders — or, if forced to play the traditional CEO, CTO, CMO game, we’re co-CEOs. I eventually chose “other” for the application, but my interest was piqued on co-CEOs: Was it even a thing we could consider? I did some research. 

It turns out that companies I deeply admire, like Chipotle and Whole Foods, have co-CEOS. Samsung has three CEOs. But the world of co-leaders is tricky territory: For centuries, we’ve liked neat power hierarchies, which can at least put all of the decision-making power (and blame) into one clean package. Yet I’ve experienced first hand that co-leading a company brings as many (if not more!) benefits as it does challenges. So I asked some of my favorite entrepreneurs — who have co-founded and co-lead successful companies — for their strategies that keep their businesses growing and everyone happy. 

1. “Equal” doesn’t have to mean interchangeable. When best friends Liane Weintraub and Shannan Swanson first started their company, Tasty Brand, which sells “better-for-you” snacks, they knew they wanted to be equals in co-creating and leading the company. “People would ask what each of our roles were, and we would tell them that we were interchangeable, which really confused people,” says Weintraub. “At that time we were both making every decision and doing everything together, which is not only ridiculously time-consuming, but it's not the best use of our individual strengths.”

As their business grew, they eventually made the shift into separate-but-equal roles out of necessity — it was the only way they would have enough bandwidth to expand. “Today we have a much better grasp on what is in each of our wheelhouses, so to speak, and we have better-defined areas of focus,” says Swanson. To that end, Swanson deals with internal, operational and manufacturing, while Liane works mainly on external communications and marketing. They also divvied up their sales accounts to avoid overlapping. 

On the other hand, Shala Burroughs and Kate Kendall, the co-founders of community manager marketplace CloudPeeps, say their defined roles were straightforward from day one because their strengths are so different. “The idea itself for CloudPeeps was Kate’s,” explains Burroughs. “She is a creative and a visionary, but I’m in my zone hammering out a process and getting stuff done. Our personalities inherently set the tone for our roles.” To that end, Kendall is the CEO and Burroughs is the COO — their roles speak to who they are, what they love and what they are each good at.

Takeaway: Just because you’re equal doesn’t mean you can’t each play to your strengths — but take some time to figure out what your strengths are first. You might find an unexpected affinity for areas of your business you didn’t know you cared about.

2. Prioritize communication with daily catch-up sessions. To make their “wheelhouse” plan work, Swanson and Weintraub place the utmost importance on communication. “We don't want to wind up working in a vacuum without input from each other, so we make it a point to sit down for a few minutes each day to download everything to each other. If we have crazy-busy days or one of us is traveling, we connect by phone. Our policy is to try not to end a day without a catch-up session.”

Takeaway: Schedule five-minute meetings with your co-leader to start and end the day. Consider: What should we be prioritizing? What is our team prioritizing? How should we respond to new opportunities?

3. Stay focused with a “why” vision. “All actions should lead to your ‘why,’” says Kendall, who recommends watching Simon Sinek’s TED talk on this concept. “Creating branding documentation and chatting about your culture and values early on with your co-leader isn’t esoteric fluff — it’s the key that keeps everyone aligned to a specific vision.” Once the “why” is aligned, everyone can own her own “how.”

Takeaway: Work to carve out a firm vision that you and your co-founder or co-leader can anchor on from day one. That way, when you get into the day to day and the nitty-gritty, you have a guiding vision you can come back to.

4. Know each other’s life vision. Burroughs recommends going one step beyond having a collective business vision: You should also understand your co-founder or co-leader’s personal vision for her life. How does what you are building fit into her overall plan? What does she want to do in her lifetime? “It may seem tangential to some, but knowing that information from Kate has helped me to be the best teammate possible and has brought us closer. We not only know what train we are on together, but where we want it to go,” she explains.

Takeaway: Leading a company is intense — no question! But understanding what drives your co-leader beyond the business will help you both set each other up for success. Go on a co-leader “date” and talk big-life visions, what her ideal life and day look like, and where the business fits into her life. You’ll come back better able to support each other. 

Rachel Hofstetter is the author of “Cooking Up a Business” (Penguin, 2013). She was so inspired by the entrepreneurs she wrote about that she left her food editor career to launch guesterly, a software platform that enables anyone to create a playbill for life’s special events. Today, you can find her sharing guesterly with the world by day — and recipe testing at night!

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