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Co-heads Are Better Than One

8 behavioural tactics for being a successful company or department co-head

By Tim McEwan, Leadership Specialist and Fellow in Management Practice at Cambridge Judge Business School

When I was global head of leadership and development at Henderson Global Investors (latterly Janus Henderson), there was a period when the company had two leaders – co-chief executives. This came about around 2017 when Henderson merged with Janus. It was seen as a temporary fix to help the two big firms “bed down” together. At the time, it raised a few eyebrows.

Indeed, the practice of having co-heads at a company still does tend to cause eyebrows to raise. We tend to assume that the situation is unsustainable and simply too difficult to make work. However, while I can’t prove that this situation is becoming more common, anecdotally it certainly seems to be cropping up more often, both in terms of coaching clients and also within my network.

Many of us have seen this scenario fail, but when it works and two co-heads work well together, the results can be extremely powerful. That said, it is difficult to make it work. Egos can get in the way, as can different perspectives and lack of practice of working together so closely.

At Henderson, for example, the two co-heads didn’t last long. While I believe they both had a similar destination in their minds, they differed fundamentally in how to get there. While one of them valued people and culture and put that at the top of their agenda, the other valued outcomes and tasks and put those at the top of the agenda.  

Neither is right or wrong, only different, and they are both important. It’s more about where you put your focus. Their different approaches and priorities created too much noise for the organisation and what was planned to be a two-year co-head period was drawn to a close after one year.

Where I have seen co-heading work well, it’s interesting that it has more often been two women working together. It’s interesting to speculate on why that might be, but in the meantime, I’ve put together a list of pointers that should help.

Because of how hard it can be to make this kind of relationship work – and because of the significant potential benefits from getting it right – let’s take a look at some behavioural tactics that will increase your chances of making such scenarios work effectively.

Tactic 1: Understand compromise

Compromise is essential when sharing the limelight in almost any capacity. When running a business, both your points of view can’t carry the day – unless you agree on everything 100%. Sometimes you might have to give way. Understand that this is ok and know which issues you want to take a stand on and which you’re happy to concede.

Tactic 2: Be prepared to show emotion and vulnerability

This isn’t about pouring your heart and soul out to your team, by any means. With your employees and followers, you need to remain calm. But it is important to show vulnerability and some emotion with your co-head. Doing so helps you to bond.

Tactic 3: Trust your co-head

This may be a step you have to go through very early on, but trust is vital to any productive relationship. You must respect their competence and experience. In turn you should expect them to respect yours. This means you should also be able to trust them to make certain decisions without you that are in your mutual best interest, and that they will consult with you when needed. You also need to reciprocate this and be trustworthy in your own decision-making.

Tactic 4: Be friendly

You don’t have to be best friends. In fact, it’s probably best if you’re not, as this should help avoid disagreements becoming too personal. However, you do need to be friendly, polite, and considerate, which is all part of showing respect.

Tactic 5: Accept that things change

Circumstances change, as do relationships, motivations, and moods. You have to be ok with this, and flexible enough to adapt as needed. If and when your partner changes, you must be ready to redefine your role in the partnership.

Tactic 6: Take and share responsibility

When something goes wrong, the very worst thing a co-head can do is turn to their co-head, shrug their shoulders and say, “That was your responsibility.” Being a co-head means joint decision-making and joint responsibility. When you experience a success, don’t take all the credit for yourself. Share it with your co-head. By the same token, when you fail, share that with them too. You’ve got to share those ups and downs equally.  

Tactic 7: Recognise the impact your have on your co-head

You have a disproportionate impact on your co-head, purely because of how closely you work together. Your impact on each other emotionally and psychologically will be much greater than the impact either of you feels from anyone else at your organisation. If you fall out with each other or get a bad mood, that’s going to affect them big time. And if you get pissed off with each other? That’s so fundamental that the rest of the company will feel it. How you relate to each other creates ripples that spread throughout the organisation. It’s important to be aware of that. 

Tactic 8: Be clear on your roles and responsibilities

The times I’ve seen co-heads work well, one key reason was that the two individuals had clearly defined and separated roles and responsibilities that emphasised the respective strengths that they brought to the partnership. In certain circumstances, splitting roles and responsibilities makes perfect sense. Where that does make sense, it works well. Consider whether you could do this in your situation.

Compromise, clarity, and confidence – the three Cs of successful co-heading

Browsing back through these eight tactics, the repeat themes are interesting. Trust your co-head and be trustworthy. Be prepared to compromise when necessary, but have the strength of your convictions to make a stand for those things you feel are important. Be clear on your shared goals and methods, and clear on your roles and responsibilities.

Being a co-head is more like being in a marriage than any other business relationship I can think of. Like a marriage, you need to be ready to experience ups and downs together. Hopefully you will find these tips and tactics helpful if you’re navigating a co-head situation yourself. Just remember: it can work, and when it does it’s worth all the extra effort.