“Ninety percent of the trouble we have with the chief executive’s job is rooted in our superstition of the one-man chief,” wrote Peter Drucker in his 1954 book The Practice of Management. More than half a century later, the image of one and only one omnipotent leader remains deeply seated both in business theory and practice.
Although the figure of the charismatic CEO continues to dominate, leadership may be shared in numerous ways. Co-heading a company, after all, allows different leadership styles and competencies to be simultaneously available to the organization, something difficult to manage with a single individual. For example, one of the co-heads can be task-oriented, while the other is a “people person.” Or one can focus on innovation — the study and pursuit of new opportunities — while the other controls the exploitation of existing operations. One can lead the personnel inside the organization, while the other mobilizes the energy and support of external stakeholders.
Co-chiefs are less of a rarity than one might suppose. There are numerous examples of successful and well-functioning pairs and trios heading a wide range of enterprises. Companies such as Google Inc., the foremost search engine company on the Internet; Guess? Inc., the popular American brand-name clothing line; Research in Motion Limited, the Canadian company that launched the BlackBerry; IMAX Corp., the entertainment technology company; Veronis Suhler Stevenson LLC, the capital investment firm serving the communications and information industries; and Sapient Corp., the business innovation consulting firm, have all worked at some point or continue to work under power-sharing arrangements at the CEO level. Similarly, Winthrop H. Smith and Charles E. Merrill ran the New York brokerage house Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. jointly for decades. And the New York-based Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has long operated not only with co-CEOs but also with co-department heads; it recently appointed co-presidents and co-COOs as well.
Power-sharing arrangements are not exclusive to large firms. They are also found in small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as in new ventures and family firms. In 2002, the MassMutual Financial Group/Raymond Institute American Family Business Survey found that almost 13% of the companies in the sample had two or more co-CEOs; interestingly, more than 35% said that they would consider co-CEOs in the next generation of their companies.