Five Things to Know About the Co-CEO Model

Jan 10, 2024
Kate Walton

Hello from Steyer!

Over the holidays, I fielded a lot of questions about the leadership change we announced in December, with the most common being “Why co-CEOs”? I’ve already laid out my reasons for choosing Katelyn and Tony specifically. In this post—because workplace innovations are kind of my jam—I’d like to discuss the model more generally.


Here, in listicle form for easy digestion, are five key points:

1. While the co-CEO model is rare at large, public companies, it’s actually pretty common at smaller, private companies. (You can listen to Marc Feigen, described by Fortune magazine as “the CEO whisperer,” talk more about this here on Freakonomics).

2. One of the biggest benefits of the model is less burnout. Having a partner in the CEO role allows for leaders to be human: for example, to get sick, or to be present as a caregiver. It also makes possible the necessity of real time off, including unplugged vacations.

3. But for those who fear that the business world is getting too soft, note this: there’s evidence that companies with co-CEOs also perform better. Research on public companies published by Feigen in the Harvard Business Review showed that CEO pairs—as rare as they’ve been—have delivered annual returns that were nearly 40 percent higher than the returns of companies run by solo CEOs.

4. Does this mean every company should have co-CEOs? Of course not! The conditions have to be just right:

  • Most importantly, the individuals involved need to have a certain mindset about leadership. Specifically, they need to see leadership as largely about responsibility, not power.
  • It’s also important that co-CEOs have complementary, not overlapping, skill sets. This both reduces the risk of turf wars and allows for better decisions, informed by different disciplines and perspectives.
  • And for when the going gets tough—because it always does!—the relationship between any co-CEOs needs to be rock solid and road tested, built on mutual respect and nurtured by constant, candid communication.

5. Tiebreakers are a terrible idea. Research in Motion (RIM), the company that made the Blackberry, had co-CEOs whose 20-year partnership was legendary until RIM’s board stepped in to settle a dispute about strategy by picking a side. The CEO who “lost” left soon after, and a year later his partner CEO did as well. (Based on this cautionary tale, I’ve told Tony and Katelyn that no matter the impasse, I won’t be breaking any ties; in every instance—big and small—they’ll need to find a way forward together—even if that means a rousing game of Tiddlywinks to make a call.)

It’s nice to be back with you all.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Because I worked in crisis comms for many years and know full well the dangers of hubris, I will add: even with the conditions at Steyer being just right for co-CEOs, none of us—not Katelyn, not Tony, and certainly not me!—know for sure that this arrangement will work out in the long term. We think it will, and we hope it will—but all we really know, based on the strength of our relationships, is that we’ll be able to navigate change, and if necessary course correct, with kindness, grace, and good humor. As a business owner, it’s everything that one could hope for—and all you truly need.

Also, I linked to that Wikipedia page on Tiddlywinks for inclusivity reasons, but even if you know the game well, check it out. It’s a treasure trove! Some teasers: the little discs are actually called “winks.” The name derives “from British rhyming slang for an unlicensed public house.” And then there’s this deliciously defensive paragraph: “Tiddlywinks is sometimes considered a simple-minded, frivolous children’s game, rather than a sophisticated strategic game. However, the modern competitive game of tiddlywinks made a strong comeback at the University of Cambridge in 1955. The modern game uses far more complex rules and a consistent set of high-grade equipment.”

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash