Like many things, my thinking on this has evolved over time. I used to think having co-CEOs was almost always plainly a bad idea. But now I think maybe it’s only a bad idea when done for the wrong reasons.
The drawbacks of co-CEOs are large and clear:
- No one knows who the boss is. It’s very confusing who makes decisions ultimately.
- High potential for ego issues. Are the founders just kicking the can on a big issue — who’s ultimately the CEO?
- High potential for multiple marching orders. If CEO #1 says do A and CEO #2 says do B, it’s just so confusing, again.
I’ve worked in a 2-founders-are-equal environment, and it is confusing. No doubt. I often wasn’t sure who my boss really was.
It’s also not always clear who the boss is with your parents.
If the co-founders are truly partners, and partners for life (or at least, for decades), and truly have deep respect for each other, and truly want to be co-CEOs (i.e., both are OK with the stresses, too), then it can work.
When it does, you can get superpowers:
- Twice the CEOs to visit with customers and prospects and partners. This can be almost like having an identical twin. You can be in two places at once.
- Always someone to mind the store. Someone can always be in the office. This takes a lot of the stress out of being on the road, or even, just taking a vacation.
- Someone else to make lots of decisions. Yes, having 2 CEOs can make it confusing. But it can also accelerate a lot of decision processes, if the 2 CEOs truly trust each other. Fewer bottlenecks.
- Easier to manage multiple product lines. Here is where I think companies like Atlassian and Salesforce get a boost. One CEO can focus on 1 product area, the other a different product area.
- More champions for innovation. Bet-the-bank innovation has to come from the top. Having 2 folks with the power to do that can spur innovation.
It works for Atlassian.
It’s working for Salesforce now.
It seems to be working for Oracle, at least in part.
It can work.
IF it is for the right reasons.