One leadership position, several leaders – that is the idea of co-leadership. Julinda and Sven, Co-Heads at SIX, know that the success of this model requires much more than the division of tasks.
What was your motivation to create a co-leadership position?
Julinda: We decided to merge two teams. We were convinced if we had the teams collaborating and looking at problems jointly we would be able to find better solutions and deliver more value for the company. Once we made the decision the question arose as to who would lead this newly joint team. Someone suggested, “Why not opt for a co-leadership?” Because our background and our skills were complementary, because we had worked together before, and had a good basis of trust and respect, we decided to go for it and take on this challenge.
Where do you benefit most from each other?
Julinda: It’s important to understand that in our department we have three business areas and in two of them we are building up the business from scratch. Building up a business requires skills, experience, a lot of strength, and endurance. Without the combined power of both of us and of course our teams we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this for two businesses at the same time.
Many people talk about how successful they were in building up their business. What they usually don’t talk about as much is the doubt, uncertainty, and tough decisions that arise during such a journey.
We have been on this journey for four months now. We have, of, course, encountered challenges, but have also learned a lot. We can already see great benefits and positive effects from this work arrangement. The other person not only understands and helps you to deliver even better quality or to make better decisions, but he or she also allows you to open up and reflect during difficult moments, especially when things are not going the way you had planned. This, for me, is definitely one of the greatest benefits.
A research paper by Prof. Dinesh Hasija suggests “interpersonal trust and relationship commitment” as the two key elements for this leadership model to be successful. Would you agree?
Sven: Absolutely. As Julinda mentioned before, one of the benefits is having someone at your side to reflect and motivate you especially during challenging times. This absolutely requires trust. And the question is, how do you get there? When we thought about taking on the co-lead challenge we met at a coffee shop on a Sunday and talked for three hours about our values: what is important to us personally, what principles we have regarding leadership, and what we want for our teams.
This was a first important building block in our relationship which we then decided to build our co-leadership on. We are still working on this every day.
This is especially important for the team. When they talk to one of us or when one of us makes a decision, our team needs to be assured that both of us are aligned and trust each other.
Do you think it is important to match on a personal level as well?
Julinda: I think it’s not necessary, but it’s important to be complementary to a certain degree. It’s also important to have different skills and experiences as well as to have different viewpoints in areas that are not business-related. Of course, it’s much more fun if you respect and enjoy being with the other person. All areas are very important, but the emotional level is not to be underestimated.
Business psychologist Rebecca Newton says, “Share ownership of the goal but divide roles and responsibilities” when it comes to co-leadership. How are you organized with your co-lead?
Julinda: We are very lucky in the sense that our superiors as well as Human Resources are supporting us on our co-lead journey. With this support we took the time early on to decide on our principles: how we would make decisions and how we would divide our attention and resources while still having overarching goals – not only for us but also for our different teams. We have figured out where we share full responsibility, where we share responsibility but one of us is in charge, and where we are independent. At the same time it’s just as important to address new challenges as they come. Not everything can be planned, and time is limited. That’s why it’s also important to have some commonalities, for example both of us are very pragmatic and quick to deal with new challenges.
Sven: You are never done. I mean, it’s leadership, to co-lead means to lead, and you are never done with being a good leader or even a great leader. We are constantly improving our co-lead role, and the way we implement it is based on the feedback that we receive from our team and, of course, the feedback that we receive from each other.
How do you manage and guide your team compared to a single leader?
Sven: For us it’s important that the team benefit from a wider skillset in the leadership and from well-founded decisions. This requires that we avoid inefficiencies as much as possible, that there should be no need for coordination with both co-leads and that we are not difficult to reach, for example, that we are not both attending the same meeting. This is where the clearly defined responsibilities come in as well as the trust that we share in the co-lead. With this we hope we can really deliver a lot of value to the team compared to a single leader.
There are a few areas where we actually do everything together. One of them is the development of the team and organization. It’s important for us because if we are both responsible for reaching our goals, we need to be both in agreement about how to best structure the organization to reach these goals. For the team there is an additional benefit. They get two different views, they generally get a more comprehensive feedback, and they get two people who think about what the next best step in the team development is.
Julinda: We also put quite some effort into ensuring that the team is affected as little as possible from this new leadership structure. Especially at the beginning when we were not yet perfectly attuned. And I remember that in one of the first meetings with our team we were very honest. We communicated that there were probably things that we hadn’t considered and that we would need the team’s feedback on.
How do you handle disagreement when you have to make a joint decision?
Sven: This is a key topic we also discussed early on when we started on our co-lead journey. First of all we are responsible for the same goals, which from the start eliminates possible conflicts of interest. Also, in a disagreement, you take the time to explain your point of view, but also make sure you understand the other person’s point of view. This process usually allows us to reach consensus. In the rare case that we fail to reach agreement, we have designated a person we both trust who we can turn to to help us find the right decision.
Julinda: In the end we are different people. And this is also why we benefit from this structure. We have different perspectives. It is also about having and giving each other the space, opening up, and listening to the different points of view. That’s how you reach better decisions.
What advice would you give to others who want to work in a co-leadership position?
Sven: Make time to understand the values of the other person. Make sure that you are compatible with the other person, agree on principles which you want to live by every day, and write them down. Ultimately it’s easy: You need to understand that a co-leadership will become one of the most important relationships in your professional life. You really need to ask yourself whether you can see yourself working side by side with the other person through late nights to solve really difficult problems. If the answer is yes, then go for it. As in all great relationships it is both enriching and challenging.