Nov 12, 2016
Forbes Magazine Features the Teamwork of TechStyle Co-CEO’s
Lessons In Leadership From Co-CEOs
Forbes Article By Natalie Burg
These days, the speed of business is lightning fast. Just ask the leaders of TechStyle, an e-commerce fashion company with four subscription-based brands including JustFab and Fabletics. In just six years, the company has grown to 4 million VIP members and is projecting net revenue of more than $650 million from subscriptions and merchandise sales in 2016.
That speed of growth is too fast, says TechStyle’s co-CEO Adam Goldenberg, for any one leader to handle alone.
“In order to manage the rapid growth, it’s helpful to have a partner in the business who you can divide and conquer with, ” Goldenberg said of his partner, co-CEO Don Ressler. “While Don is focused more on the elements of our business that impact customer satisfaction, I am able to dedicate my time to optimizing business efficiencies.”
The depth of experience and knowledge needed to be competitive in today’s economy may explain why the co-CEO model is appearing in more businesses. The structure has been embraced by such high-profile companies as Warby Parker, Whole Foods and Oracle. Co-CEOs work side-by-side, each taking on responsibilities best suited to his or her skill set, while creating a united voice of leadership.
“If you can get to agreement on the big stuff — and that takes work and a commitment — there are real benefits to making it work, ” said Ty Montague, co-CEO with Rosemarie Ryan of Co:Collective, a strategy and innovation firm.
Co-CEO teams like TechStyle’s and Co:Collective’s haven’t found their way to success accidentally. Here, they share how they’ve leveraged the model to benefit their businesses in today’s market, as well as how they’ve overcome the challenges of leading in a new way.
New Leadership For A New Workforce
Hierarchical workplaces are no longer the norm. It’s now common to see open office plans with founders working alongside interns, and employees chatting up management via social media and messaging apps. As the era of the CEO cloistered away on the top floor fades into history, the co-CEO model has emerged as a new style of leadership.
By definition, co-CEOs are cooperative where solo CEOs can be unilateral; communicative when others can be withholding; and democratic when a single leader can be authoritarian. In a workforce being flooded with Millennials, the less-hierarchical structure is far more appealing — and likely to influence the rest of the company.
“All the good things that happen at an organization — and all the bad things — happen at the top, ” Ryan said. “It gets mirrored down the organization. We very much model the behavior we want to see throughout the organization.”
Overcoming Shared Challenges
There’s no denying the co-CEO model is controversial. “If you’re a my-way-or-the-highway type of leader, it’s not for you, ” Ryan said.
The co-CEO structure inevitably creates conflict between two powerful people. Yet when managed well, those conflicts can inject every decision with twice the brainpower and perspective.
“You have to fight. You have to be willing to disagree and passionately debate, ” TechStyle’s Goldenberg said. “That’s the only way you’ll get by, and the only way you’ll make the best decisions.”
When not managed well, however, an argument can turn to a standoff, public fissures between the leaders and an organization divided. Ryan and Montague took those concerns seriously from the get-go. When the pair first teamed up as co-presidents of marketing giant J. Walter Thompson, they were wary of joint leadership horror stories.
“We hired a consultant to help us game out all the possible things that could pull us apart, ” Montague said. “Years later we went down the list, and every single one of them happened to us. It was really useful that we’d gone through that preparation.”
With careful planning and constant effort, successful co-CEO teams are able to stay unified under all circumstances.
“Don and I disagree plenty behind closed doors, and there isn’t always a black-and-white answer, ” Goldenberg said. “But the moment we make a decision, that decision becomes our decision.”
The resulting success or failure, he adds, becomes their shared success or failure, no matter whose original idea was right or wrong.
Montague and Ryan take a similar approach to decision-making.
“Making sure there’s no daylight between you is really important, ” Montague said.
Adopting the co-CEO model may prove harder in the beginning. But those who can make it work can be more prepared for today’s rapidly changing economy with double the expertise and twice the leadership power.
A former downtown development professional, Natalie Burg is a freelancer who writes about growth, entrepreneurialism and innovation.
This article is not an endorsement of any particular product, service or organization; nor is it intended to provide advice. It is intended to promote awareness and is for educational purposes only.