Salesforce recently announced it would bring on a second CEO, despite mixed results at other companies. Co-CEOs told Moneyish about the rewards and challenges of sharing top-dog status.
Two CEOs can be better than one — but it depends on whom you ask.
Business-software company Salesforce announced last week that it would elevate its vice chairman and president, Keith Block, to serve as co-CEO alongside longtime chief executive Marc Benioff, Fortune first reported. Benioff will focus on products, technology and culture, he told the outlet, while Block will focus on operations and distribution functions. The new arrangement fits with how the duo had already been running the business for years, Benioff added.
“This announcement really reflects how Salesforce is run today, which is that Keith and I over the last five years have developed a very strong partnership,” Benioff told Fortune. “Of course, we knew each other for quite a bit before that … And we’ve really grown to be great partners. We wanted to cement that, so we’ve exchanged our vows and now we’re co-CEOs.”
Just 23 of the Fortune 500 companies have attempted this structure over the past 30 years. And having two people share a company’s most powerful post isn’t always smooth sailing: One such attempt by Deutsche Bank, for example, culminated in co-CEOs Anshu Jain and Jürgen Fitschen’s joint resignation in 2015. Former Chipotle co-CEO Monty Moranhas stepped down in late 2016, leaving founder Steve Ells to return to his sole CEO role. That same year, Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey assumed a sole CEO gig as co-CEO Walter Robb stepped aside. While co-CEOs Safra Catz and Mark Hurd have jointly helmed Salesforce competitor Oracle since 2014, the company’s founder and chairman “continues to wield significant influence over the company,” the Wall Street Journal noted.
Career coach Roy Cohen generally advises against the co-CEO arrangement, warning that it can create a “gladiator competition” of sorts. “In large part, individuals who aspire to become leaders — specifically CEOs, COOs (or) presidents of companies — are very ambitious and highly competitive,” he told Moneyish. “And those sorts of people don’t always play well in the sandbox.”
While the structure might fly at a small startup, he added, “often, leadership is not well-suited over the long term for that sort of collaborative relationship.” “Once those organizations graduate and become more deeply entrenched in traditional kinds of procedures and decision-making; when they become more formalized,” Cohen said, “that’s when it gets a little more complicated.”
A co-CEO partnership could succeed at an organization where “there’s less riding on individual payout,” Cohen suggested, and greater emphasis on the success of the business. “As long as there is an openness to communication and a respect for what each individual brings to the table, and that continues to be acknowledged, and both individuals go back to the table every year or two (to) re-examine their contributions so that there’s no feeling of one person being short-changed,” he added, “then I think, yeah, that could work very successfully.”
Former immigration lawyer Sarah Moe, 34, met her business partner Stephanie Goldfinger, a 37-year-old former chef, through a mutual friend in 2017. Less than a year later, they officially launched Flauk, a company to help entrepreneurs with the branding, copywriting, design and marketing required to launch a business. They now lead a remote team that includes three others; Moe, who has no permanent “home base,” currently lives in Denver, Colo., while Goldfinger is in Chapel Hill, N.C.
While Moe thrives on “big picture, administrative and outreach work” including networking and bringing in new clients, she said, Goldfinger enjoys handling the company’s visual identity and making decisions about internal processes. “When we were looking at the tasks of a CEO, I think both of us got turned off by certain tasks,” Moe said. “And luckily for us, I would get turned off by tasks that Stephanie really wanted to do, and Stephanie was not interested in doing tasks that I really enjoyed doing.”
Of course, Moe said, the duo has tackled its share of challenges. They’ve had to reconcile their different communication styles — Moe even took a communication course in the process — and are working to smooth a disconnect in how they each give feedback to team members. “At the beginning, there was some competition … Like, ‘Who’s really in charge?’” Moe added. “And I think it just took us dividing up the tasks to see we’re both in charge.”
Stephanie Cartin, 34, and Courtney Spritzer, 30, co-CEOs of the New York social media and influencer marketing agency Socialfly, co-founded their company in 2011 with disparate titles: Cartin, who has a hospitality background, was CEO, while Spritzer, who came from finance, was COO. But since the two shared equally in all major responsibilities, Cartin told Moneyish, they decided in 2015 that sharing co-CEO titles made more sense.
“My focus has always been on sales and marketing; Courtney’s focus has always been on finance and operations,” she said. “But in terms of the higher-level thinking and visions for the company, we were doing all of those things together, so we felt it didn’t make sense that I was CEO and she’s COO.”
The duo, who launched Socialfly in their 20s, learned along the way that the key to a successful business relationship is establishing trust and open communication, Cartin said. “We know we have the same vision for the business, and there’s never been any type of struggle for having more power,” she said. “Everything is shared, equal responsibility. We both work around the clock together. It’s never been one of us doing more work than the other.”
But perhaps no partnership is quite as round-the-clock as the co-CEO lifestyle of a married couple. Ally Davidson, 35, and her 39-year-old husband, Jeff Davidson, co-founded the Austin, Texas-based fitness company Camp Gladiator in 2008. (Ally, who tried out for NBC’s “American Gladiators” on her wedding day in 2007 and went on to compete on the show, used that gig as an opportunity to launch their business.) Jeff handles tech, finance, legal and general operations of the business, Ally said, while she presides over the trainers, workout product, culture and public relations.
A co-CEOship can be “very similar to being married,” she said: “It’s just learning how to communicate, work together (and) keep each other motivated and bought in.” And while they may run an outdoor bootcamp, Ally added, the two don’t compete with each other. “We’re on the same team trying to win the same game.”
They recently threw kids into the mix, a 2-year-old girl and an 11-month-old boy. “I think it’s actually been really helpful, because it has made things more balanced,” Ally said. “Previously, it was always a struggle for us to be talking about work at home, like you can never turn it off. But the good thing when you have kids is we’re so busy with them, we’re not talking about work most nights.”
Ally admits a co-CEO structure doesn’t typically work for most organizations, and that it’s not always necessary. “But for us, we feel as if it’s needed because of our different skill sets,” she said. “If you can find a way to make it work, there’s obviously huge positives to it. You’ve got two people who can divide and conquer a little bit.”
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