Heavy is the head that wears the crown: Are two CEOs better than one?

Bev Shah announces changes at the top at City Hive

It’s lonely at the top with the buck always stopping with a single, strong leader who carries the very heavy and constant burden of difficult decision making.  This is, of course, the de facto approach to leadership.

A CEO steering the direction, culture, decision making of an organisation. Governance norms now provide for the c-suite for checks and balance, but the CEO creates the vision and sets the tone.

However, times, expectations and demands of today’s leaders are changing. The global pandemic transformed so much about the way we work and gave space to a type of leadership that could balance the needs of the business with an acknowledgement of the humanity of its employees.

Organisations are also witnessing the rise of a new generation of consumer, cognisant of their own power, and determined to wield it. These consumers are holding organisations, and leaders, to much higher standards, demanding accountability, transparency, and often a clear demonstration of a deeper commitment not just to profit and performance, but also to ESG.

Thus, we have seen the emergence of the so-called ‘servant leader’, as well as ways for employees to participate more or be more autonomous in how they work. That’s why when we hear of a CEO with particularly fixed views on how the workplace should function (read: the way it always used to), the collective reaction is closer to eye roll than applause.

These shifting expectations may need different skill sets and ways of thinking to create high performing and successful. Some c-suite and executive teams have evolved and grown to encompass different functions, but this requires a bigger mindset shift. Perhaps, most of all, acknowledging that it is neither realistic for one figure to encompass all of the skills, ways of thinking and adaptability that is now expected, or that they can always effectively hold themselves to account?

So, isn’t it wise to rethink how we approach leadership, to flex the collective skills and strengths we might find?

Enter the co-CEOs

Co-CEOs are still rare and have typically been associated with start-ups or firms who need a temporary solution to leadership. Of the 2,200 companies listed on the S&P 1200 and Russell 1000 from 1996 to 2020 less than 100 were led by co-CEOS. 

Yet, in the same vein as other firms such as Netflix, Lombard Odier Investment Managers, Oracle and EQ Investors, City Hive operates a co-CEO model with me and Mandy Kirby now sharing the top role.

The co-CEO approach has allowed City Hive to ensure that accountability sits on both of our shoulders. Carving out clear but separate roles and responsibilities means that we can each play to our strengths, bringing a wider, more diverse range of skills, experience and ways of thinking to the table. It also allows us to have double the expertise, insight and time.

The theory states that the co-CEO structure doesn’t work because power sharing doesn’t work – we would disagree. The real value of this model is that it means getting the best out of both leaders because they support each other to do their best work. So, if the structure doesn’t work it could be you have the wrong people in place.

A new type of leader

In the aftermath of the global pandemic, and the Great Resignation, there has been widespread feelings of burnout, and weariness of the long hours and hustle culture that were once so glorified.

A co-CEO model addresses this burnout, while also widening the net and creating the opportunity to diversify leadership. Sharing the top job spreads the burden of responsibility (and the time expectation that come with this) from a single set of shoulders, and places it across two, offering the chance of a better work/life balance.

Surely this could prove a powerful tool to address the ongoing diversity and gender imbalances that we continue to see at executive level, and allow those who are traditionally locked out from the top job an opportunity to lead?

With change typically coming from the top, the co-CEO structure also sends a powerful signal about the ethos of an organisation. If accountability is encouraged via power sharing, this could create a companywide culture of openness, encouraging greater innovation, inclusion and cognitive diversity.

Of course, the model requires an effort of its own to ensure clear communication and shared vision and values. It may not work for everyone. Businesses are not homogenous and many firms will continue to find that they are best suited to the traditional, single CEO and c-suite model.

There could be a middle ground that looks at how to bring greater accountability and responsibility through more collective leadership. And for those who are in search of a different approach, accountability that encourages greater diversity, wider thinking, a culture of openness, perhaps it’s time to put the possibility of co-CEOs firmly on the table.

If heavy is the single head that wears the crown, then why not take it off and make it a nice centrepiece – better for your posture.


Natalie Kenway

Natalie is editor in chief at MA Financial covering ESG Clarity, Portfolio Adviser and International Adviser. She was previously global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist...