The surprising benefits of co-leadership

Because two brains really are better than one

Meeples on a paper airplane

What is co-leadership? Co-leadership is two or more people in charge of a team or group. They share ownership of the goals of their team but divide the roles and responsibilities. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright worked together to invent the first successful airplane. Trey Parker and Matt Stone used their creative talents to come up with the irreverent animated series, South Park, one of the longest-running television shows in America. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, got started by taking a $5 ice cream course together. 

When you think of leadership, it’s easy to think about one person steering the ship. But, as the above examples prove, there are plenty of successful creations that had two people at the helm.

That’s co-leadership in action. And, while it might seem counterintuitive to your traditional view of authority, these types of partnerships can really pay off. One study published in Group Dynamics found that shared leadership is a useful predictor of team effectiveness.

What is co-leadership?

Co-leadership means you have two or more people equally sharing power and influence over a company or project, rather than a single leader. 

There are plenty of successful companies that have used a co-leadership model to run their entire business including Whole Foods, Oracle, and also Atlassian. 

But, while co-leadership exists in the broader context of company management, you can also apply its wisdom and best practices to project management. This means dividing responsibilities and having shared ownership over the outcome of a specific project or initiative.

Anyone can co-lead a project. You don’t need to have a formal position of authority to be successful.

For example, an individual contributor on the marketing team might join forces with someone from the engineering team in order to spearhead the redesign of a website. Neither one needs to be a team manager in order to co-lead the project.

What are the benefits of co-leadership?

One of the perks of being a leader is that you’re the one who gets the respect and notoriety of being in charge. So, why would anyone want to willingly share that glory?

As it turns out, co-leadership actually offers a number of advantages. These include:

1. Smarter solutions

Co-leaders bring different and complementary skill sets to the table, resulting in higher-quality outputs.

Returning to our website redesign example, say our marketing manager didn’t team up with engineering. They may have come up with something super creative and exciting that was never going to be technically feasible. On the flip side, if engineering had been tasked with shipping a new website, it would work fast and be slick, but it might not represent the value proposition of the product or company. Only by leading together can the two groups come up with the right solution for the problem.

2. Faster progress

Leadership is a lot of work, which can result in feeling overwhelmed. Research from Deloitte found that 57% of respondents say their organizations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules. 

Sometimes you just need more hands to get the job done. Co-leadership means project leaders can divide responsibilities and reduce their personal stress. Plus, with two leaders in place, other team members have more points of contact they can turn to for guidance and direction, which prevents bottlenecks.

3. Better decision making

With one leader in place, that person’s preferences and experiences tend to inform the work done. However, when co-leaders have different perspectives, they need to engage in a productive conversation about what route to choose. 

Co-leaders have no choice but to explore multiple options and viewpoints to find the best way forward, which leads to stronger decisions.

4. Collaborative culture

You can preach the value of collaboration until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to hold much water if you constantly have one person calling all of the shots.

Having two people work together in a leadership capacity sets a good example for the rest of the team about how to successfully share responsibilities and ownership.

What are the challenges of co-leadership?

When it’s done well, co-leadership offers a number of advantages. However, there are reasons that not everyone is successful in leading with others.

1. Varying skill sets

The fact that co-leaders bring different skill sets to the table is a positive thing. It can also present some challenges, especially in regards to communication. 

Every profession has its own set of jargon that can cause communication breakdowns between owners. Each leader has to take the time to make sure that their expertise is being effectively communicated so that projects don’t get confused or off track.

2. Increased confusion

With two people in charge, team members might become unsure who to approach with confusion or problems. For example, if they’re wondering about one of the project’s goals, should they approach Leader A or Leader B with that question? Or both?

Having two points of contact can be a positive thing, but only if everybody is crystal clear on who is handling what.

3. Slower decisions

Co-leaders need to make decisions together. While that can lead to more informed choices, it’s not always the most expedited process.

When you need both leaders to agree before finalizing a decision, that requires some healthy debate and conversation — which takes time.

4. Potential for disagreements

Even if they have a really solid relationship, disagreements between co-leaders are inevitable. They won’t always see eye-to-eye on the best direction for a project.

If neither will budge to reach a compromise, that results in a number of problems, including resentment and stalled progress on the project.

How to co-lead well (and actually enjoy it)

The good news is that in spite of the challenges, you can set up your co-leadership experience for success. The key points here are shared vision, clear roles and responsibilities, and great communication.

1. Set goals together

You’re not both just pushing toward that project finish line together — you also need to collaborate to establish the finish line in the first place. What’s the goal for the project? What does success look like?

That’s not up to just one of you to decide, so make sure that you’re working together to set the project’s objectives (this OKR template can help). Using a content collaboration tool like Confluence makes it easy for you to hash out goals together, provide feedback, and settle on a final version to be shared with your team.

2. Share knowledge openly

We all have the tendency to view our knowledge as currency at work. A reported 60% of employees have had a difficult time getting their colleagues to share information that’s vital to their work. 

We like to think that knowing more than the next person means greater job security for us. However, being stingy with your expertise isn’t something you can do as a co-leader. For the relationship to be successful, you need to openly share information and keep your teammates in the loop. 

Create a centralized location where you will share all documents and plans related to your project. In Confluence, we call this a team “space”. Creating all of your project-related content here gives everybody (from your co-leader to your other team members) full visibility into the project details they need. And in Confluence you can tag people on pages, assign action items, record meeting notes, and document decisions so that everyone knows what they need to know.

3. Be clear about roles and responsibilities

Right at the start of the project, you and your co-leader should clearly define your designated roles and responsibilities. What tasks will each of you handle? What questions will you answer? When something unexpected comes up, how will you decide who will address that? 

To make this process even easier, run this Roles and Responsibilities play to clarify expectations. Once you’re crystal clear on what each of you are responsible for, make sure that you share that with your team members so that they understand where each of you fits in.

4. Discuss wins and losses

Even with two kickass leaders in place, your project is bound to hit some unexpected snags. When that happens, it’s tempting to try to sweep those blunders under the rug (particularly if you feel like you’re the one at fault). 

Remember the value of honesty here. Co-leaders need to be open not only about project successes, but also failures and sticking points. This gives you the opportunity to lean on each other and find the best way to bounce back. You can discuss wins and losses as a part of a weekly team meeting or in regular team or project retrospectives. 

good leadership (whether it’s done with a partner or not) requires a high degree of vulnerability and humility. 

5. Be open to change and feedback

Co-leadership is about more than just the two people who are spearheading the project. That dynamic trickles down to other team members, and even clients and customers. 

Those people might have some constructive criticism to share about how this arrangement could go more smoothly. Maybe team members need more clarification about the division of your responsibilities. Or, perhaps they’re getting conflicting advice from each of you.

Don’t bristle when you’re faced with this sort of feedback. It exists to help you improve. So, absorb that input and see how you and your co-leader can appropriately action on it.

What kind of soft skills does it take to be a co-leader?

Unlike technical skills, soft skills are personality traits or characteristics that you possess. They’re somewhat intangible and hard to quantify, but they’re still important for a successful leadership relationship. Here are just a few that co-leaders need:

  • Trust: If people are going to lead together effectively, they need to trust each other. Research shows that distrust can sabotage the success of the project and ultimately provoke “feelings of insecurity and anxiety, causing people to feel ill at ease and expend energy on monitoring the behavior and attempting to understand possible motives of others.” 
  • Openness: Co-leadership means that no single person is making all of the decisions. They need to remain open to other opinions and methods for getting things done. A “my way is the highway” approach will only lead to conflict. 
  • Honesty: One survey of more than 100,000 people found that, by and large, honesty is the most valued leadership quality. Co-leaders not only need to be transparent with each other about challenges, successes, and updates, but they also need to be upfront with the rest of the project team.
  • Collaboration: Considering there are two people steering the ship, they obviously need to be able to collaborate with each other effectively. That means they need to be able to share responsibilities, make joint decisions, and generally work well together without a high degree of conflict. 
  • Communication: Communication goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. As mentioned previously, some disagreements are inevitable and strong communication skills means that co-leaders will be able to express their thoughts professionally  without screaming matches and hurt feelings. 
  • Accountability: Co-leadership involves dividing the load, but it also opens an opportunity for leaders to shirk ownership. With somebody else at the helm with them, it’s easy to point the finger when things run off the rails. For co-leadership to work, accountability is non-negotiable. Unfortunately, research shows that it’s a skill that a lot of leaders lack. 

Of course, there are plenty of other soft skills that will serve co-leaders well. And, while it’s tempting to write these types of qualities off as fluff or buzzwords, they really do carry a lot of weight. 93% of employers say soft skills are an essential or very important factor in hiring decisions.

Make the most of co-leadership (and avoid unnecessary conflicts)

Co-leadership offers a lot of potential benefits, as evidenced by the fact that some amazing inventions (ahem, airplanes and innovative ice cream flavors) were born out of partnerships. 

But, we’ll be honest: co-leadership isn’t always an easy gig. While needing to share those directive responsibilities adds a lot of complexities, it’s totally possible to co-lead well, and the above advice will get you started on the right track. 

Keep in mind that co-leadership is a constant learning exercise. Stay committed to the process and resist the urge to kick the arrangement to the curb the second you hit a road bump. After all, in those circumstances, you have the benefit of another leader that you can lean on for support and encouragement.

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