Divide and Conquer: The Collective Power of Co-Leadership

Gillian French

Employee Experience Officer

30 Jun 2022

With traditional hierarchies no longer serving us, it’s time we started to embrace more flexible workplace models like co-leadership.

With the unprecedented pace of organizational and technological change we’ve seen over the past two years, many of us have learned that we simply cannot predict what will happen next. 

As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, said during the pandemic, we’ve seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. We need to ensure our businesses are resilient and can endure whatever challenges occur.

However, the expectation that leaders should be up to date on every aspect of what is happening in their industry, business, and the wider economy is unrealistic in this day and age. The pace at which information is being produced is staggering; I believe the latest quote was 2.5 quintillion bytes each day. 

The context has shifted so much that we need fresh, innovative thinking in our organizational structures. I think that now is the perfect opportunity to facilitate some meaningful structural change in the traditional workplace hierarchy. 

Sharing leadership might sound radical to some, but it can have substantial benefits for companies and their employees. Leading people in the evolving world of work is no easy task. Surely, dividing our resources and conquering the challenges together is an obvious next step? For Clare Gibson Nangle and Rebecca Olschner-Wood, co-leaders at The Fund for Global Human Rights, their team came to this realization at the height of the pandemic.

I had a great chat with Clare and Rebecca recently where I learned more about the changes in their team. They share their leadership duties with a third colleague, Frances Tennyson. 

Explaining how they began to make the change, Rebecca said: “Our co-leadership really came about organically. We had two staff in our team leave in quick succession, including our Director. This was also six to nine months into COVID, so there was a lot going on. 

“I think at the time, none of the team were particularly interested in taking on the Director role as a single person in the way that role was conceived. But we also just recognized that we were all juggling our own COVID realities, too. Clare has three children, Frances, our other colleague, has a child too. So it didn’t feel like a realistic way forward.”


Rebecca, Clare, and Frances decided the most logical next step would be to draw on their existing knowledge rather than bringing in somebody new and getting them up to speed. 


Could co-leadership pave the way for more inclusive workplaces?

For Rebecca and Clare, co-leadership became about including more people in the decision-making process, paving the way for a more diverse and inclusive workplace overall.

Clare said: “We were naturally able to become so much more collaborative in the work, which then had the natural kind of trickle-down effect of creating a healthier team dynamic.

“We ended up in a true shared leadership structure, but the conversation within the organization was more about being consultative and having people have input into decisions – about decentralizing power and democratizing decision making.”

Rebecca added: “It was really also about not just sharing a burden and workload, but also sharing power and making decisions.”

And in terms of personal experience, Rebecca believes that co-leadership has made their relationships stronger. “The way that we work together, there’s a level of support and solidarity that is so different from our experience of the team beforehand,” she explained. 

“And we’ve really tried to work with empathy and compassion for each other. Personally, on a kind of emotional level, it’s just much more motivating. It’s a revelation.”

Clare and Rebecca’s mention of compassion and empathy really resonated with me. Sometimes I feel that we’ve suppressed feminine traits in the workplace. 

We at times elevate women, but often do so without actually embracing the feminine traits like cooperation, collaboration, and empathy. Perhaps these values could help offset the unhealthy or overused behaviors that can surface in traditional organizations that are more likely to be competitive, ambitious, self-sufficient, and authoritative.

Why consider co-leadership?

It’s quite a daunting outlook for people that have performance managed individuals and set individual goals and targets to consider a co-leadership model. How did Clare and Rebecca manage this? And how do they think organizations could start moving in that same direction?

For Rebecca, it’s about showing how the model can work for everyone rather than a select few: “What I’m really conscious of, is not framing shared leadership as something that should be only a way of bringing more women or people from other groups that might be excluded from leadership roles, into those roles. 

“It could also just be another way of working that all people could be embracing. I think it’s about feminine principles that could apply to all different kinds of organizations.” 

But to make co-leadership work, you need to be willing to embrace particular values. “We all really trust each other and we don’t have egos,” Clare explained. “And because of our strong relationship, because of the trust we have, we’re not trying to compete with each other.”

Throughout history, we’ve really compounded this individualistic ‘culture of me’, and ‘what’s important to me’.

So how do we get people to break down those walls that they’ve built around themselves and around the mindset of ‘it’s me, it’s my performance’, and instead, really foster the collective?

“I think part of this is showing people; mobilizing people to understand the benefit on the other end,” Clare said. “So you might be giving up something related to, for example, a public profile, to an extent. But what you gain is a more effective and a more efficient way of working.”

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What needs to be in place for successful shared leadership?

Delving a bit deeper into cultivating the right conditions for shared leadership, Clare and Rebecca had some pointers. Unfortunately, Rebecca said, there’s not exactly a handy how-to guide doing the rounds to help you take the leap. 

Something they found beneficial was coaching. Rebecca said: “It was just a really useful protective space for conversations about the ways we wanted to relate to each other and being intentional about how we work. That was a really useful process.”

In particular, she wants people to remember that “co-leadership doesn’t mean less work”. “I mean, yes, we’ve divided and conquered responsibilities and I think we’re definitely more effective as a team, as a result. But to make decisions in line with our values does take the time to communicate and coordinate.”

At the end of the day, though, successful leadership – shared or otherwise – comes down to empathy, compassion, and understanding. Rebecca, Clare, and Frances have been able to build trust with each other, particularly when it comes to decision-making. They know that when each of them brings an idea to the table, it’s not a power play but a genuine proposal for the good of the business and its people. 

“Something I’ve loved about this is, I don’t always need to get my way and that’s okay,” Clare said. “And regardless, things will still progress and progress well, because each person knows what they’re doing. We concede on certain things because we still trust that things will progress as they should.”

Rebecca agreed, adding: “I think our willingness to make it work is the single thing that has made it work.”

“The one thing I would add is the idea that leadership has to be intentional, whatever model you choose,” Clare concludes. “You must take the time to study it, to know what your principles are, and then to implement it.

“And if you’re supervising people, you need to ensure you have time in your schedule to do that and to do that well. If you’re going to take on the responsibility of leadership, you need to know that it is a true responsibility. It’s not just about the title or the salary or whatever.”

The lasting impact

Clare and Rebecca are confident that for their company, co-leadership has impacted more than simply their bottom line.

“I think, to be honest, it really goes beyond that, right? Our colleagues are really happy with the way we’re working together, but also the way we are working with them.

“Essentially, during a really, really challenging time in the world, I was able to not only keep my job, but actually progress in ways that I probably couldn’t have imagined at the time. The truth is, with this dynamic, I feel so much more recommitted to the team and to the organization.”

And for Rebecca? She feels similar; that co-leadership has made an “enormous difference” to her professional motivation and job satisfaction: “I think for me, the greatest personal benefits have been that job satisfaction and motivation to get up in the morning and do the work.”


The bigger picture

It might be easy to dismiss this new way of working because it deviates from more mainstream leadership models. But at the end of the day, we know that traditional hierarchies are no longer serving us and we’re already starting to see the buds of change.

For example, one of the most recognizable brands in the world, Netflix, has two co-leaders: Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos. And closer to home at Workvivo, our co-founders John and Joe have worked together to bring the company from a small start-up in Cork to the highest-rated employee app globally.

In their article for Chief Executive, BurnAlong co-leaders Daniel Freedman and Mike Kott write: “Among the Fortune 500, fewer than 25 companies have had co-CEOs in the last 30 years. 

“But the absence of something doesn’t prove anything. The few female or minority CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is not a case for only having white male CEOs.” 

And as far back as 2015, co-CEOs of online shaving company Harry’s, Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider, helped debunk some of the myths around shared leadership. Andy told Business Insider: “People underestimate the value of debating major decisions and having a thought partner.” 

Jeff mentioned the advantage of “covering double the ground”, but also added: “And being the CEO or founder of a company is pretty lonely. Having a partner who’s in it with you every day and can share that is really, really helpful and valuable.”

We constantly talk about innovation from the perspective of product development, technology, and system improvement, but we need innovation in our work practices just as much. 

It is time we normalized more flexible leadership (and more flexible working in general) not just for women, but for everyone.