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.