How to Make Co-CEO Relationships Work
Follow these guidelines to structure the relationship so you can scale quickly.
We want to make sure we’re equal in everything.
We each contributed to the idea equally.
We both want to be in charge and equally invested in the company’s future.
Founders may find sharing the CEO title appetizing, preferring to divvy up the leadership, responsibilities, and duties of a typical CEO 50/50.
Two heads are better than one — or at least that’s how the thinking goes.
The problem, however, is that such a partnership can become difficult in the long-run — where egos, intentions, miscommunications, and who makes the final decision on what gets unclear — that it can prove fatal to a growing startup.
“Research at this point generally suggests co-leadership is not effective. It’s difficult for two high-powered individuals, such as two leaders, to interact without becoming paranoid and fearful of the others’ intentions, and such paranoia can lead to performance-detracting power struggles.”
- Lindred L. Greer, Associate Professional of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business
To do it right: avoid duplication, have a transparent decision-making process, and learn how to respectfully disagree with one another.
Step 1: Avoid Duplication
“In the same way that you don’t want your best and brightest team members to spend all their time bouncing ideas off each other (or you), you don’t want to have to do that with a co-founder.”
Carrie McKeegan, CEO and Co-Founder, Greenback Expat Tax Services
As Co-CEOs, your ability to collaborate will determine your company’s future — and it also means you avoid debating every little thing that is under the scope of influence of one person.
Just look at the below table for a sample division of duties and responsibilities:
In this example, each CEO has identified scopes of influence that fall under specific domains. CEO # 1 will take the lead if a hiring decision needs to be made. If there were a potential investor meeting, CEO #2 would attend.
That does not mean that your roles or duties may not overlap from time to time. But it behooves you to have a clear division of labor so that you can execute faster. Make it as elaborate or as simple as you need to, avoiding over-collaborating when you do not have to.
Establish some guidelines. Get clear on expectations. And don’t forget the essential ingredient of trust, which will help you scale your decision-making process.
Create a Decision-Making Process
“One of the most common criticisms of the co-CEO arrangement is that it confuses stakeholders.”
John Ganey, Co-CEO, Logical Position
Create a decision-making process that complements your skills and avoids the confusion that plagues Co-CEO structures. A sample one is below:
The starting point is alignment — Are you and your Co-CEO aligned with the decision you’re going to make? If not, go down the right-hand side of the decision-making tree.
To help you find common ground, individually rank the pros and cons of the decision, giving each pro and con you identified a numerical value. All of them should total 100. Then see where you both agree and where you do not.
Ask yourself — What is the overlap? That’s your zone of potential agreement. From here, negotiate until you can come to a decision, which will be more likely now that everyone knows what they see as valuable and vice-versa.
The success of your Co-CEO relationship will hinge on your ability to make decisions together — and that starts with getting comfortable having these types of discussions.
Create a process like this that suits your own needs and situation. It’ll help you:
- Find a cohesive message that you can then broadcast to your stakeholders;
- Developing a collective voice that integrates both of your interests and needs; and
- Have you practice respectfully disagreeing.
“Being forced to share the CEO title often becomes a power struggle. The second your leadership becomes misaligned, things will start to fall apart.”
Heidi Zak, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Third Love
Disagreement is healthy. It’s how you disagree that ultimately matters.
If you get angry, shut down, or start name-calling, then you disagree wrong. To disagree productively, you need to learn how to have an open dialogue on tense issues. Learn to understand each other’s perspective and discuss the best solution for the company (and not just your ego). Your Co-CEO relationship will be stronger for it.
Here are some tips for disagreeing respectfully:
- Do not do it in front of employees or other relevant stakeholders
- No name-calling or personal attacks
- Take five minutes to write out your solution or ideas, and then switch, reading what the other side wrote. Find areas of commonalities or potential agreement
- When in doubt, use your company values to help you find a third way forward
- Look to objective data or a third party if you have severe doubts about how to move forward and cannot come to an agreement
- If either of you are emotional, ask yourself, “What is causing this, and is it appropriate?” Sometimes you need to vent before you can have a productive dialogue
- Have a beer and chill out — remember the context of how you disagree matters — and humanize one another
How you communicate will be essential. Can you do it respectfully while hearing the other side out? Doing this will be crucial as your business grows.
Bottom Line: Co-CEO relationships can be advantageous if done correctly. Work with the uniqueness of the structure, setting yourself up to not avoid unnecessary duplication, getting clear on a decision-making process to help you wade through the grey areas, and disagreeing respectfully. Do these things, and you will set yourself up for success.
Who am I & why should you listen to me?
I am a mediator that specializes in resolving co-founder disputes.
I have brokered high-stakes equity deals between founders, and have coached Co-CEOs in creating strong alignment so they can scale their business ventures. I have found that no two conversations are ever the same, and it really comes down to the founder’s willingness to move forward together.
For this reason, I use a blended, collaborative form of mediation. To learn more about my personal style of mediation, check out my article: