Sometimes two leaders are better than one

From the C-Suite newsletter: What Colony Project's Amanda Shuchat and Katie Muir have learned from trying out co-leadership.

Co-leadership

By Amanda Shuchat & Katie Muir

Queen. President. CEO. The very definition of these monikers reveals individual superiority. Society, especially the business world, has grown accustomed to hierarchy and individual leadership. But in a time when collaboration has become an essential ideal, dual leadership is poised to make a comeback.

The Colony Project started like most agencies – with one managing director at the helm. But on a quest to see if I (Amanda Shuchat) could have it all, I left on maternity leave, hiring Katie Muir (the co-author of this article) as SVP and interim MD.

After my return in January, it became clear making this a permanent partnership was best for the business. Between balancing work and family, the onset of a global pandemic and the fact that it has become even more difficult to keep women in the workforce, we discovered having both of our expertise at the helm makes us twice as strong – and feel at least four times more productive.

Colony isn’t the first to test this out. Tech giants Salesforce, SAP and Oracle all dabbled in a co-CEO approach, although they swiftly abandoned them, leading The Wall Street Journal to declare, “Co-CEOs are out of style.” While these companies didn’t disclose their personal reasons for changing course, industry analysts and experts have cited competitive tensions and unclear authority on decision-making to historically be at the top of the list of reasons these models don’t work. But before we could mourn the death of the twin title, in June 2020, Netflix announced it was promoting its former chief content officer Ted Sarandas to co-CEO, sharing the title with founder Reed Hastings.

So how can the dual leadership model flourish? For us, success lies in adopting the right philosophies.

Checking your ego at the door

The traditional leader was often thought of as powerful, decisive, even teetering on aggressive. But expectations of modern leadership have evolved. As part of a study of 64,000 people across 13 countries recently referenced in The Harvard Business Review, the modern leadership qualities now most frequently cited include empathy, selflessness, collaboration, flexibility and patience.

The dual leadership model only works when both leaders possess the emotional intelligence to check their egos at the door. Through active listening and direct communication, leaders can appreciate how their role ladders up to the overall success of the business. It brings the concept of achieving through others into clarity, knowing that just because something wasn’t one person’s idea, the ultimate benefit to the larger entity and its people is the real win.

Prevailing over hustle culture

“I have too much time on my hands,” said no CEO ever.

We’ve all bought into the idea that climbing to the top requires giving 110%. While we would be the first to attest that embracing hustle culture got us to where we are today, leaning into collaboration and – dare we say – asking for help is what will get us to where we’re going. As entrepreneur Joe Procopio has observed, “the math on giving 110% often breaks down to giving 10% across 11 different priorities.”

By finding a partner with a complementary skillset, responsibilities can be divvied up accordingly, solving for who makes final decisions and where, which has long been a concern of dual leadership models. For example, where one of us thrives in organic growth, the other excels when it comes to new business development.

This doesn’t mean that we both aren’t involved in pitches or connected to existing clients. It simply means one leads the overall strategy and decision making in each realm. Doing this successfully requires both leaders to be really honest with themselves about where they can offer the most value rather than choosing to believe we’re each the best at everything.

Embracing the fun of it all

The old adage “it’s lonely at the top” can often ring true. Partnership at the highest levels offers a sounding board and connection to help put an additional filter on decision making. Of course, this only works if both partners share similar values and appreciate each other’s leadership styles. Like a marriage, the “who” is more important than the “what.”

At the beginning of Colony’s life, when it was still a young start-up boasting a small team with everyone wearing multiple hats, it made sense to have one leader to drive strategy and make quick decisions. But as we evolve, we’ve found having two leaders at the helm is better than one. Not just because we laugh more each day, but because we’ve increased efficiency, enhanced leadership across all areas of the business and avoided questionable decisions. Simply put, we’ve learned that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

At a time when every industry is focused on evolving their business models to remain competitive and relevant in today’s rapidly changing landscape, why shouldn’t our leadership models evolve along with them?

grab5Amanda Shuchat and Katie Muir co-lead The Colony Project.