Do you know any CEOs who have enough time to meet all of their obligations, both personally and professionally? If so, I’d love to meet him or her!
While there have been several high-profile breakups this year of dual-CEOs (or should we call them “duel”-CEOs) from the likes of SAP, Oracle and Salesforce, I’ve had a much different and very positive experience as a co-CEO.
Being a co-CEO isn’t for everyone, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that if you are able to embrace this structure’s benefits and navigate its difficulties, your company can achieve great success.
Ten years ago, I was in the midst of several major transitions. In life, my wife and I were about to have our first child, and I wanted a better work-life balance. In business, I had just sold my previous company after four hard-charging years. I still had a strong desire to start a new entrepreneurial venture, but this time with a partner.
The co-CEO model is non-traditional, to be sure. But for me and my co-founder and co-CEO, Jason Cohen, the last decade has been the best experience of my professional life.
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How to succeed
The formula to success in a co-CEO model has little to do with how to even out the “decision-making power” of two leaders, and everything to do with building a symbiotic relationship. The relationship must be based on humility to accomplish things it would be difficult to do without the other, which I call 1 + 1 = 3.
I had known Jason for many years, as peers and competitors in digital advertising. Having sold two successful companies of his own, I had tremendous respect for Jason’s acumen, work ethic, integrity and creativity – all crucial attributes for a founder to possess. Jason was an investor of the company I had recently sold, and it was at the dinner celebrating the sale that I floated the idea by him of starting something together.
We discussed ideas over the phone for six months (Jason was living in New York and I was in Los Angeles), and after convincing Jason he should move out to California (my most successful “sale” ever, aside from convincing my wife to marry me), we were in business (literally).
We decided from the start to be equal business partners and co-CEOs, and there are three major takeaways I have from my last decade of experience on how to make this type of relationship successful, and ultimately build a better business.
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Create your lanes and learn from your co-CEO
With the energy and aggressiveness of a New Yorker, Jason is world-class at business development and corporate strategy. He has an upfront, direct approach to communication and is relentless in his pursuit of getting our business in front of the right person, whether that is a Fortune 500 CEO or a potential investor. Jason’s approach has taught me how to put myself in situations I’m not as comfortable in to cultivate and grow relationships with partners and customers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m a West Coast guy who’s often reluctant to show all my cards upfront. I bring an analytical and rigorous approach to the operational aspects of business, which has challenged Jason to look at strategic and tactical scenarios in new ways.
Understanding your strengths and knowing the lane you best operate in is only one part of the equation. As a co-CEO, the challenge and opportunity to change lanes and get out of your comfort zone, while learning, is invigorating.
Realize that disagreement is part of the deal
Jason and I disagree on something nearly every day. What has enabled us to transition our disagreements into resolutions is the respectful manner in which we go over divisions and analyze them on a deeper level.
Like a marriage, you have to be willing to see arguments from both sides, and consistently challenge your perspective. This takes tremendous discipline and effort from both parties. Sometimes one of us compromises, while sometimes one of us sees the other person’s direction. In the end, we arrive at an agreement that makes sense for the both of us, which ultimately is a decision that’s better for the company as a whole.
Accept each other as mentors
As a co-CEO, it’s important to understand what it means to own and accept the roles of both mentor and mentee – the catalyst to a symbiotic relationship of 1 + 1 = 3.
It’s no easy feat, but it’s extremely rewarding if you’re able to accept your business partner and co-CEO as a mentor. Mentors provide motivation, emotional support and guidance. Mentees listen, learn and adapt accordingly. From the challenges and debates to the advice and counsel, Jason and I always keep each other’s best interests in mind for the betterment of our company and to continuously evolve as leaders and individuals – both in business and life. As you can probably guess, transparency and humility are very important to make this work.
Being a co-CEO isn’t for every entrepreneur. Frankly, I’m not sure I was ready at 25 or even 30. Marrying skill sets as a co-CEO brings a ton of advantages to a company and requires a ton of work. In my view, more entrepreneurs should take this approach and, in the process, build better companies.