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Sharing the way: how is it to be a joint CEO?

Katie Antill, joint chief executive at Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support Services, reflects on what she has learnt from sharing the CEO role with her colleague Sarah Taylor.

To read Sarah’s blog about stepping up to a CEO role, click here.

Last July I found myself in a situation where our CEO (of just a few months) had left suddenly and me and my fellow senior manager, Sarah, were proposing to the board that they consider us on a joint ticket. We were confident that we were the ones who could take the charity forward and that we understood the team and the people who use the service. Thankfully the proposal was accepted, and we were offered joint CEOs on an interim basis for six months – to show that it would work for us, for the charity, for beneficiaries, and the board.

That was six months ago and what a learning curve we have been on. I think we felt sure our vision and values were pretty similar, having already worked together as senior managers. But we quickly realised we had to work out how this “joint” business while also making that transition from senior manager to CEO. All easy stuff!

Sharing the way

Being joint CEOs is often a point of fascination, whenever we meet fellow chief executives. There are those intrigued about how we manage to share and others who are envious of having someone to share with.

People often ask: how do you make it work? I think even our chair is looking for us to say that we have a big row but that never happened. So, while it is nowhere near as good a story as having a screaming match to work through our differences, the key to our working relationship seems to be:

  • Keep talking
  • Knowing each other’s strengths
  • Being generous to each other
  • Clear delegation
  • Sharing the vision

We were both appointed as senior managers at the same time, and those roles had not been totally thought through, so we had to work out individual responsibilities between ourselves. We have applied the same techniques with our joint CEO roles, thinking carefully about where our strengths lie and also what opportunities we could find to develop ourselves. We spent a day planning together who was going to take on what area of responsibility and who we would each line manage. We also recognised that this would need to be reviewed and that is exactly what we have done.

As senior managers, we quickly worked each other out and spent time using a strengths profile tool to see where we complimented each other, and where we could help each other with the things that de-energised us. I also found my leadership chat with ACEVO’s director of leadership and governance Jenny Berry really useful. It was a great opportunity to reflect on my own strengths and how they fitted with Sarah’s. For example, we both know that Sarah is good with detail and I am hopeless. She often checks my spellings and adds a few commas for me.

Sarah and I share the same values and see the same future for the charity, that we both love. We both demand more for people affected by dementia. There have been things we don’t agree on, but we just seem to have a way to keep talking until we reach a compromise. We are conscious that this can take a bit more time, so we set aside time each week to have these conversations. Being naturally very planned and organised people helps us to make this happen.

I think we also have generosity in our approach with each other. If we are attending something together I might have an awareness I have done a lot of the talking – therefore I make sure I give Sarah the opportunity to talk, and vice versa. As a twin I have always had to share the limelight, it’s a place I feel comfortable, and Sarah and I often joke that she is my work twin.

I like to think we are setting the tone for teamwork and cooperation throughout the charity and so far, so good – no blazing rows. But we will let you know if it happens!

Recommended: listen to Debs McCahon and Sarah Welsh talking about their experience of being joint CEOs.

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