With a shared vision, synchronised responsibilities and a ‘co-centred’ approach, the two CEOs of Uniting WA embody the value of a co-leadership model.
The concept of shared leadership is uncharted territory for most organisations, but a closer look reveals a landscape rich with potential.
While co-CEO models are still extremely rare – currently, just seven companies in the Fortune 500 operate under co-CEOs – organisations that have taken the plunge into a co-leadership model are reaping substantial benefits.
Research published in Harvard Business Review last year examined 87 public companies operating under co-CEOs and found that these companies tended to produce more value for shareholders than those led by single leaders. When co-CEOs were at the helm, they generated an average annual shareholder return of 9.5 per cent – a significant improvement on the overall average of 6.9 per cent.
This begs the question: why aren’t more organisations exploring the co-leadership option?
The increasing value of co-leadership
The traditional leadership narrative often reveres singular leaders, holding them up as beacons of individual strength and skill. However, with the complexity of today’s business environment, finding a leader that can do it all might become challenging. As a result, it’s often the case that two heads are better than one.
One organisation that is successfully leveraging the benefits of having two CEOs of differing backgrounds is Uniting WA, a not-for-profit community services provider whose programs span the areas of family services, disability, mental health, accommodation services and more.
Following the departure of the company’s CEO in late 2021, its COO Michael Chester and Head of People and Culture Jen Park approached the board to propose an interim co-CEO model until an appropriate candidate was found.
After the success of the six-month trial period, the two applied to jointly assume the CEO role on a permanent basis. Despite initial scepticism from some stakeholders, the pair has since thrived.
“From an organisational structure perspective, the one role that has remained mostly unchanged is that of the CEO.” – Jen Park, Co-CEO, Uniting WA
“The board was a little unsure of the model and how it would be perceived long-term, externally as well as internally,” says Park.
“Even though there are other [organisations] that do it, [co-leadership] is quite rare in this sector. So the board had those usual queries like, ‘What if they fall out?’, ‘What will the sector think?’, ‘Will it damage our reputation?’”
Overcoming these doubts required Park and Chester to demonstrate that they could present a united front to the workforce while still leveraging the benefit of having two sets of skills and perspectives.
“The common vision was a really important element, which they could see once they interviewed us separately and saw the different perspectives we were taking towards achieving a common vision,” says Chester.
“Right from the start, that relied on Jen and I having absolute trust in each other, because we’ve committed to this together. And those were conversations we had to have before we put this forward.”
The two made it clear they would manage distinct aspects of the role while sharing key performance indicators. They also made it clear to the board that if one of them were to leave the role, there was no presumption that the other would automatically remain in the role.
“We don’t make every single decision together on a day-to-day basis, because that [would be] ineffectual and unproductive,” says Chester. “So we have to trust each other in terms of those decisions that we are making on behalf of the organisation, and support each other in that process.”
“We get along fantastically well [even though] we’re quite different in the ways we think.”
By effectively sharing their responsibilities, Park and Chester model the culture that they want to create; that is, one where collaboration is at the core of everything they do.
Redistributing the leadership load
Most individual leaders will tell you that it gets lonely at the top.
This is a concerning trend, not least because of the new responsibility to manage workplace psychosocial safety now sitting on the shoulders of CEOs. Leaders are also dealing with new and emerging challenges that never crossed their predecessors’ desks, such as hybrid work and the proliferation of generative AI.
According to Park, most leadership frameworks have yet to catch up with these developments.
“From an organisational structure perspective, the one role that has remained mostly unchanged is that of the CEO,” she says.
“People are all about flexible work practices and work-life balance, and CEOs need those things as well.” – Jen Park, Co-CEO, Uniting WA
“But there’s a much greater expectation that people will be able to see the CEO engaged, that the CEO will be walking alongside them, be very visible, very transparent and available almost 24/7. And that’s just unrealistic, which is why CEOs are burning out. Nonetheless, this is what people are looking for.”
A co-leadership model has the potential to fill a lot of these gaps, she says. By jointly occupying the role, Park and Chester have doubled their accessibility and ensured that the organisation is never without a leader.
“People are all about flexible work practices and work-life balance, and CEOs need those things as well,” says Park. “[That way] you can attract better candidates to the role.”
Both CEOs tout the co-leadership model as a huge help to their wellbeing, helping them share the leadership load and giving them a sounding board with whom they can share successes and challenges.
A co-centred approach to leadership
For organisations considering implementing a co-leadership model, Chester and Park advise plenty of early discussions about the type of leadership the business needs. They advise against bringing together two candidates with complementary skills without measuring the synergy between them, especially if the candidates are external.
“It would require a lot of early conversations with the key people being considered to see what their attitude would be,” says Chester. “For us, this comes down to [having no] ego and humility.”
To ensure this, the two leaders take what they call a ‘co-centred’ approach, rather than a self-centred one. This means that accountability for successes and failures is always shared , and that self-interest is left out of decision-making processes.
This approach has reaped huge rewards since Park and Chester were appointed, with staff expressing appreciation for the increased transparency and accessibility of the co-leadership model.
“We’ve had real stability across our leadership,” says Park. “We’ve been able to roll out our strategic plan and launch it with minimal fuss. And that [comes down to] the fact that we’ve got double capacity and capability at the top of the tree.”
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