Are Two CEO Heads Better Than One?

After having co-Chief Executives running the business for the past two years, leading retailer Marks & Spencer has recently announced that one of its co-Chief Executives is retiring and it will be returning to the more traditional model of one Chief Executive Officer. Many were dubious of the co-Chief Executive approach when Marks & Spencer made the move in 2022; however, it allowed for the acceleration of their five-year plan as they could each focus on separate areas of the business with Stuart Machin focusing on the grocery side while Katie Bickerstaffe took responsibility for apparel and online.

The past year has also seen an increased focus on their third-party brands and partnerships, with the business becoming the UK’s best retailer for womenswear – you could certainly suggest that the co-CEO model, although relatively short-lived, was successful for M&S.

Interestingly, a similar discussion was had at a recent roundtable we held on ‘The Future CEO’. In discussing what the role of the CEO might look like in the future with a room of Scottish business leaders, the prospect of having two CEOs as opposed to one formed a large part of the discussion. Following this, and with M&S’ recent news, Kirsty Mclardy, Head of Research at Livingston James, felt it would be worthwhile exploring the pros and cons of considering co-CEOs rather than a sole CEO in the current unprecedented, fast-moving and challenging market.

 

The Argument For co-CEOs

An article by Harvard Business Review examined 87 public companies with co-CEOs as their leaders and found that these businesses produced more value for their shareholders with an average annual return of 9.5% compared to 6.9% for those with a sole CEO. The article also found that co-CEO tenure was around the same as that for sole CEOs.

The CEO role in the current landscape is so multi-faceted that people often joke that someone would require two pairs of hands. A co-CEO model puts this into practice in a literal way, allowing each CEO more time and space to focus on the areas that come most naturally to them.

Having two CEOs with complementary skillsets, for example, one who can focus on the customers and clients whilst the other focuses on operational or financial aspects could ultimately lead to better business performance. It also allows for diversity of thought, collaboration and unity, at the very top of the organisation. Having two people with differing backgrounds, experience and perspectives can of course mean more robust and considered decision-making, increased innovation, and more thorough strategic planning, all of which can then trickle down through the rest of the business.

Another benefit of having co-CEOs is portrayed in M&S’ current situation – a contingency plan and consistency when one person steps away. In sole CEO organisations, when the CEO steps away with no succession planning in place, it can result in a significant negative impact on company performance, morale, reputation and bottom line. You could argue that there is no greater succession planning than having another individual already performing the role.

In M&S’ case, Machin will now look to take the lead on his own, but should companies wish to continue with the co-CEO method, having one still in situ allows time and space for a robust selection process to be carried out in order to appoint the new co-CEO, meaning a higher likelihood of choosing the best candidate.

Netflix is one example of an organisation that has managed this transition incredibly well. Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, started planning his transition to Executive Chairman long before he actually made the move, initially by making Ted Sarandos his co-CEO for a couple of years and then completing the transition by stepping away and bringing in COO Greg Peters as Sarandos’ new co-CEO in 2023. This would appear to be exceptional planning; however, Sarandos explained in an interview with Bloomberg that Reed had had this course of action in mind for over ten years, which is perhaps how it appeared to happen so seamlessly to the outside world.

In the same article, Sarandos and Peters also suggest that the co-CEO model is only successful if you find the right individual – there needs to be a selfless, complementary, low / no ego approach from a co-CEO.

 

The Argument Against co-CEOs

Not everyone agrees that the co-CEO approach is preferable. For a period of time, having co-CEOs at the helm was quite a trend in the tech industry in particular. We’ve already touched on Netflix which continues to achieve success with this model; however, many others who experimented with the change have returned to a more traditional sole CEO model. SAP, Oracle, Salesforce and BlackBerry (at the time named Research in Motion) all trialled co-CEOs.

BlackBerry in particular would be deemed a catastrophic failure, as co-CEOs Lazairidis and Howerton failed to act and make decisions quickly in a fast-moving market, resulting in redundancies and loss of market share. Slower decision-making is perhaps unsurprising in a co-CEO model as it requires increased communication to ensure alignment, and if alignment isn’t there initially, it may be challenging to achieve when you have two ‘leader’ personality profiles.

Personality traits of individuals who assume the CEO role are often extroverted, powerful and passionate, with a level of self-confidence and decisiveness. If you pair two individuals, both with the above personality traits, there is a higher chance of conflict and difficulty in power-sharing. Unless distinctive responsibilities have been very clearly defined from the outset, there is a risk that co-CEOs may step on each other’s toes, disagree, and experience power struggles. If not managed quickly, this could have a significant impact on culture and morale, not only for the leadership team but also the wider business.

A final obvious obstacle to having two CEOs is affordability. Many organisations, particularly SMEs or those with fewer resources such as charities, will not be able to pay two CEO remuneration packages.

 

Looking Inward

Of course, we cannot forget our own journey with co-leaders as for our first ten years in trading, Livingston James had two Founders & Managing Directors, Jamie Livingston and Andy Rogerson. For the most part, this worked very well for our business, particularly in the early stages when collaboration and unity were essential to the growth of the business. In discussing with Jamie, he was conscious that occasionally decision making was slower due to the need for double sign off, or misalignment on the best way to proceed, but overall the approach allowed them both to focus on their strengths: Jamie focused more externally and Andy focused more internally as they grew the organisation.

Interestingly, the transition of Jamie buying Andy’s shares and taking majority responsibility for the leadership of the business took place just before the COVID-19 pandemic and was potentially well timed; – the highly unprecedented and challenging market of 2020 called for more directive leadership which the new structure gave Jamie authority to deploy. Of course, we have now moved into a different form of leadership again by becoming an Employee Ownership Trust. While we still have one CEO, all of our employees are now Partners in the business, and this will undoubtedly start to change how big, strategic business decisions are made as they will need to be signed off by the Trustee Board.

 

Conclusion

You could argue that many of these failings in co-CEO-led businesses happened around ten years ago and the role of the CEO has changed hugely within that time, requiring more of the person at the helm than ever, so perhaps there is more of an argument for this model in today’s landscape.  Despite this, the challenges of potential conflict, slower decision making and affordability all remain, so there is unlikely to be a ‘one size fits all’ answer when considering if co-CEOs would be right for your business. Keep an eye out for our upcoming Future CEO report though where we reveal our findings on the CEO of the future and provide advice on succession planning.

 

At Livingston James Group, our purpose is to support our clients and candidates to realise their potential. If you are looking for advice from a client or candidate perspective, please get in touch with Kirsty Mclardy, Head of Research, at [email protected].

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