Can Twitter (and your association) use a co-CEO?

Is Elon Musk exactly the kind of CEO Twitter needswhere is it fast sink it into the ground? Analyzing the various factors involved in this question – leadership style, technology knowledge, profitability issues – is too difficult to address in this small space. But the too part is kind of the point. Aside from all the armchair quarterbacking about what happened with Twitter as a product and as a business in the weeks since Musk took over the company, it’s clear that the role CEO at Twitter is a particularly important job. And maybe it shouldn’t be just one person’s job.

(Note: I am filing this on Friday morning, when the stability of the business has become increasingly precarious. All of the above might be moot while you read this, but everything that follows is still relevant.)

Co-lead is an idea that former T-Mobile executive John Legere floated last week, suggesting directly to Musk on Twitter that being asked to help take on the leadership role of the company. Legere offered that he be hired to “manage” Twitter, freeing up Musk to “support the product/technology.” Musk answered ‘no’ outright, arguing that the company needed a ‘technologist’.

Checks and balances decrease the risk of bad decisions, and two leaders improve innovation.

But if you think the business needs more than a technologist and some organizations have complex structures, task sharing might make sense. In a recent article for CEOWorldLance Mortlock and Karun Gautam of EY Canada advocated for this leadership structure. That’s rare, of course: as they note, only eight Fortune 500 companies have co-CEOs. But it “could be useful in specific industries or circumstances where a business may be experiencing rapid growth, change and disruption, or a high volume of transaction activity,” they write.

This situation may sound familiar to Musk. It may also sound familiar in the non-profit world, where post-pandemic disruption is rampant and where co-CEO structures are not unknown. One point that Mortlock and Gautam make is that structure is sensitive to the kind of environment that more and more leaders are talking about – better work-life balance, fairer management, stronger communication within a organization. If an organization wants to demonstrate that it supports collaboration in the workplace, and if “tone from the top” matters, a co-CEO agreement has a lot of virtues.

But the structure can do more than just serve as a symbol. The authors point to research suggesting that “checks and balances decrease the risk of bad decisions, and two leaders improve innovation because they can test new ideas to ensure that all bases are covered.” Co-CEO agreements can also allow separate leaders to focus on their particular strengths, ensuring that critical initiatives receive the attention they deserve, they write. (That was indeed the argument made by Legere.) In addition, they can help improve leadership succession planning.

The big obstacle to accomplishing all of this, of course, is trust. This was the most critical factor cited by the association’s co-CEOs I spoke with in 2013, and is also highlighted by Mortlock and Gautam. “Trust must be established to make decisions that align with business goals,” they write. And they point to a handful of other trust-related issues that are essential for the arrangement to work well: a plan for resolving conflicts, a willingness to put egos aside, and an environment for regular communication, both internal and external.

None of this guarantees that the arrangement will succeed. But charismatic leader approaches don’t have a good track record either. Whatever stabilizes Twitter won’t just be a function of personality. Even that of Elon Musk.

Does your association have a co-CEO agreement? Share your experiences in the comments.

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