Why running a business as co-CEOs is “like a marriage”

Conway feels there’s a real balance when it comes to their day-to-day opportunities ??they even have the exact same-sized office, though he said it ?wasn’t designed because of ego or anything like that!?. Everyone sits together, which he believes has made for a more productive environment.

When it comes to bigger businesses, the hierarchical structure may be more ingrained ?though at food specialist BaxterStorey?there’s a specific setup to ensure all operations are linked back to the joint CEOs, to ensure smooth progress all round.

The company employs 7,800 people across 745 locations ? with John Bennett and Noel Mahoney sharing the position of chief executive. They started as joint MDs, with both at the company for around ten years prior to that, and had known each other for 20 years previously.

Areas across UK and Ireland are divided between five managing directors, each running a region of the business, with Bennett and Mahony splitting the individuals between them, though those overlap. Mahony feels this arrangement gives them an added level of ?breathing space? that other co-CEOs may not have.

Where having two executives works particularly well for BaxterStorey is that they pride themselves on delivering business success built on connections. Mahony said: ?Winning and retaining business ultimately comes down to how much you’ve nurtured the relationship.? It enables them to ?spend more time talking to clients and teams having two of us means that we’re able to get around the company more easily?.

Bennett added that this extra time spent out and about means they’re also able to ?stay up-to-date in all the latest developments in the fast-moving food sector ? everyday someone comes up with a new idea on the high street and unless you’re aware, you’ll lose market share?. He pointed to the creation of a barista school, investing heavily in chefs and chef trainers, where ?we might not have had these insights if we hadn’t been on the ground? and finding out what interests customers in the food market.

The longstanding knowledge of each other and their respective abilities has meant that the two have an understanding in the workplace as well as a conciliatory attitude. Bennett remarked that a friend asked ?who wins when it comes down to it?? but if they had that attitude, ?we’ll both fail in our positions?. Both are shareholders in the businesses and ?inextricably linked at the hip?.

The option of appointing two successors is becoming an increasingly appealing one for some ? seeing the opportunity to utilise double the brainpower and potentially double the skill sets, if there’s certain knowledge one has the other doesn’t. Mark Mason, the co-founder of mobile consultancy and developer Mubaloo, thought just that when he recently decided to step back from the company. He has appointed Gemma Coles and Sarah Weller as joint MDs. The business has been moving away from solely providing app development to other technologies including the internet of things, while expanding its strategy consultancy practice, so Coles and Weller will be focusing on specific parts of growth.

Decisions here will be made by consulting one another, as well as the board directors ? who have the final say when it comes to important matters. Coles said Weller is more focused on marketing, sales and business development, while her strengths lie in strategy, the service offering and operations. While it has been a recent development, Cole believes it has been a sensible move, particularly for a company focused on growth as it means that the person at the top isn’t being “stretched too thin?.

For interim management recruitment firm Russam GMS a big plus point is that co-CEOs Jason Atkinson and Ian Joseph get on well socially ? ?we often make our decisions while running or over a glass of wine?. Their different backgrounds have also meant ?there’s a lot of cross learning going on? and ?don’t mind playing second fiddle to each other which is why it works?.

They regularly defer to one another depending on the situation. A recent dinner they hosted originally had Atkinson pencilled in to speak, before they decided Joseph would be a better fit.

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This flexibility is essential as they’ve become increasingly aware that ?the buck really stops with us?. Meticulous precision is therefore necessary with most decisions ? they pointed out that ?things have to work nine out of ten times to ensure profit and success?.

We have seen the model work at big names like Chipotle and Whole Foods (though the former came under fire when it was revealed the CEOs make considerably more than other chain restaurants), while numerous startups are fond of the setup ? particularly when it stems from a co-founder situation. Yet, the long-term forecast for joint CEOs is trickier to predict, as big disagreements on certain approaches could quickly disintegrate the workable setup ? even among two people who pride themselves on not being egotistical.

The structure looks less sustainable when the two involved don’t have clearly separated responsibilities and agreed upon strengths, though fundamentally, there needs to be a fully open flow of communication and the ability to be be conciliatory when the inevitable friction does crop up. If maintained, there’s no reason why co-CEOs can’t be a positive option to consider, allowing the business to benefit from “a diversity of ideas, knowledge and skills” as Chan said.

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