Ms. Kneip, many people confuse co-leadership with shared leadership. Perhaps we should start with the simple question: What is shared leadership, and what is co-leadership?
Petra Kneip: These are two different concepts. Shared leadership approaches are about a certain democratization of leadership in usually manageable organizations: Leadership roles are distributed here among different individuals who act once as leaders and once as those who are led. This is a dynamic, interactive leadership phenomenon at a group or team level. On the other hand, co-leadership, or top sharing or top splitting, depending on its form, is the idea of sharing one leadership position. We currently see this mainly at the lower and middle management levels. At the higher levels, the sharing of individual roles is still infrequent, but a lot is happening below that level: companies are designing co-leadership models in very different ways.
What’s in it for managers who share a job?
Sharing a position is very motivating in many cases: career development does not stop when private commitments take a heavy toll, and the cases of “lonely decisions” that weigh heavily on many managers today are becoming rarer.
Co-leadership makes it possible to balance strengths and weaknesses in one place. For example, if one person is less gifted in communication, their partner can ‘step in’ in this area. Due to the rapidly increasing demands on individual leadership positions, sharing promises better coverage in terms of required knowledge and skills.
And the companies?
Companies benefit from executives who complement each other and bring different knowledge and more perspectives to make decisions together. For employers, simply communicating the offer of part-time leadership jobs attracts qualified professionals seeking flexible careers. In this context, the possibility of pursuing a part-time executive career can send a strong message to young parents. Still, it can also help relieve pressure during other phases of life. For example, when caring for elderly relatives becomes an issue, or further training is pending that is demanding but should be part-time. Today, companies are also increasingly scrutinized by investors and other stakeholders to see how they approach the promotion of women in management positions.
And does co-leadership play a significant role in that?
Yes, co-leadership models are suitable for female managers returning from parental leave, for example. After all, many caregiving and support tasks in our societies continue to be traditionally in female hands, which also impacts the part-time rate in management positions. Of course, a new generation of young fathers also want more time for their families, but this disparity is only gradually becoming flatter. By the way, companies that allow more diversity and meet the undisputed demand for more flexibility will receive a bonus in the form of significantly higher employee retention:
If your people know that they can adapt their working hours more flexibly to different phases of their lives, this ensures greater identification – and less fluctuation.
So what does this look like in practice, or how “divisible” are leadership roles?
Many well-known examples in the media – from Atlassian to Whole Foods, Mercedes to Bosch, the major IT companies such as SAP and Microsoft, and even traditional family-owned companies such as Kärcher – revolve around management duos. However, a split does not necessarily lead to tandems; there can also be three or more executives sharing a position, depending on goals and delimitations. The same is true for the division of duties: Some organizations decide to have two managers share the same duties in both the technical and leadership areas, which means full equality and shared responsibility. But they might also decide that one will focus more on business issues while the other concentrates on human resources or organizational development. Sometimes, simply searching for personnel can provide new insights and even fundamentally change the initial job profile.
Do you mean that if you have two outstanding but professionally differently qualified applicants, you no longer have to choose one or the other, but in the future, think about employing both of them part-time?
I recently had a case where a company faced this decision and chose both candidates. It was a position in the HR department where there were two excellent candidates, each with different qualifications and focus. However, the position was not split exactly 50:50, as more than 100 percent was required for the handover time alone.
In general, it is advisable to calculate instead with 110 or 120 percent to ensure the load is not too high for the individual employees.
Many companies organize this, for example, by assigning one person to work Monday through Wednesday and the other Wednesday through Friday to create overlapping times for exchange and coordination.
When it comes to co-leadership, what is the most common model?
In practice, we often see hybrid models that combine different ideas of co-leadership – sometimes professional competencies play a decisive role, occasionally social competencies, and often also experience or knowledge transfer. Having an experienced manager and a junior manager share a position can also be promising because co-leadership offers an excellent opportunity for older employees to pass on or mentor their knowledge and experience to younger colleagues. In some cases, this can help keep experienced professionals on the job longer while developing the next generation.
That’s another win-win situation in times of a shortage of skilled workers.
Exactly. However, it is vital to ensure that the structural conditions in the organization support co-leadership and that the models are flexible enough to meet individual needs.
The success or failure of co-leadership models is determined not only by the leaders themselves but by the culture and working environment in which they operate.
So, no matter which model you choose, the main challenge is clearly defining responsibility so that employees, next-level managers and customers know whom to contact for which issues.
What must you pay attention to so as to avoid unnecessary effort and conflicts?
First of all, splitting a leadership position is a significant organizational challenge. Even with a tandem, it must first be ensured that the two function as a team, externally and internally. The division of roles impacts communication with customers and the company’s employees. There must be clarity about who is responsible for which tasks, as many further decisions depend on this. This initial coordination and communication effort must be made in any case.
From the new management team – or HR?
It depends on the responsibilities and the goals. When you use co-leadership as a staff development tool, special programs and support from HR are needed, as leadership teams need a clear structure and clear expectations to “deliver.” This may mean customizing job ads as early as the search stage to mention the possibility of sharing leadership positions or organizing internal application processes through matching processes. Some companies even use algorithmic approaches to find people who match each other. But if the new management team already knows each other and has perhaps already worked together, albeit in a different context, this makes the start easier.
That means HR departments may still bring suitable candidates together but then largely stay out of it regarding the split details.
New leadership teams often take a step back to determine what their joint leadership should look like and how they want to communicate. The more transparent they define and share this, the easier the adjustment phase.
Some tasks may need to be solved together, especially strategic decisions. In other cases, a clear division of tasks may make sense, with each team member covering their area. Some teams have even set up shared email addresses to ensure that future requests can always be directed to the right person.
You mean, there are no fixed rules for these processes that would apply to all organizations.
No. The design depends too much on the individual situation. However, in all cases, it is essential to ensure clear communication channels and good coordination to reap the benefits of collaboration. This point is vital, as the co-leaders must act as a unit in the future – and not as two lone warriors.
So, should competitive situations be avoided?
Yes. Co-leaders mustn’t see each other as competitors but as a unit that complements each other and can develop some momentum in the process. Again, HR can help by playing a role in promoting and recognizing the achievements of each team member.
Often, one of the significant challenges of leadership duos and teams is the disparity in visibility around accomplishments and an accompanying disparity in how work is valued and rewarded.
I know that current data on the prevalence of co-leadership in the US is almost non-existent. The only data available is on job sharing in general, with established institutes such as SHRM stating that around 20% of American companies offer shared positions. What is the current situation in Europe and Germany, where you teach? How many management positions are classic individual positions – and how many are shared?
First, current, reliable figures on co-leadership are generally not easy to find. The study by Hipp et al. (2023), which examines the prevalence of part-time managers in Germany and Europe, concludes that around 14 percent of employees with managerial responsibilities in Germany worked part-time in 2019. This places Germany in the upper midfield in a European comparison. The figures in the Netherlands and Switzerland were significantly higher at 27 and 25 percent, respectively. However, these figures are open to interpretation, as they cover very different sectors and occupational fields.
In the service sector, we find shared leadership positions more frequently, occurring primarily in occupational groups where women predominate. And, of course, please note that these models are still not the standard.
But is the impression that more and more companies are trying out such models correct?
Yes. Between 2006 and 2019, according to the study just mentioned, the part-time leadership rate among men increased from 2 to 4 percent, and there was evidence of an increase from 26 to 32 percent among women. The increasing popularity of these models is linked to changing working conditions: Our working world is characterized by high complexity and change, which naturally affects leadership.
We see rapidly increasing demands on many leadership positions on the one hand and new demands on working life and its compatibility with private life on the other.
Generational issues play a significant role in this as well. Both developments are reflected in legal requirements, such as part-time and fixed-term employment laws. In a nutshell, companies are responding and becoming increasingly creative here by offering new, diverse models.
Why are there still reservations about such divisions in many more hierarchical organizations, and why is co-leadership considered less attractive because it is more complicated?
It’s not about pitting one model against another. Different leadership approaches suit different contexts. The goal is to learn to take responsibility in different ways, and both vertical and horizontal leadership can coexist – in their manifestation depending on industries, companies, departments and goals. Some colleagues prefer the traditional model, as it fits well with them and their understanding of leadership is supposedly clearer. At the same time, however, other leadership models can be successful in situations where a single decision-maker would be overwhelmed. Yet, those who repeatedly ask themselves the following question are more innovative:
When we realize that our economy’s organizational and collaboration models are rapidly changing, why should we cling to single, fixed ideas of leadership to manage change?
About the expert
Petra Kneip is a professor at the ESB Business School at Reutlingen University in Germany. Her work and research focus on human resources, organizational development, and leadership.