Co-Leadership: A enabler of greater leadership diversity in the cultural sector?
Written by Dr. Claire Antrobus | Coach, Facilitator, Trainer & Consultant
The recent past has seen an explosion in interest in co-leadership across other sectors internationally and new experiments in co-leadership in the UK cultural sector in response to an increasingly challenging operating context and an urgency to increase diversity. Recent adopters of co-leadership in the cultural sector are experimenting with less familiar models including co-CEO part-time job-shares; co-CEO models that avoid the executive/artistic binary and co-AD models. Across the UK cultural sector organisations are recruiting co-leaders for the first time, for example the appointment of Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid at Birmingham Museums Trust who are the first co-CEOs of a major museum. The Royal Shakespeare Company announced the appointment of its first co-Artistic Directors in 2022, following a growing trend that includes Clean Break, Royal Exchange Manchester, Diverse City and Paines Plough among others. Sometimes co-leaders job-share, working part-time around caring/parenting responsibilities or external artistic projects, other times the co-CEOs are both full-time roles.
Internationally co-leadership is beginning to be viewed by commentators in healthcare, higher education, business, and non-profits and as a vehicle for enabling greater diversity in leadership. Others go further still, suggesting co-leadership enables a more inclusive organisational culture and offers an alternative to highly gendered leadership norms. In the business sectorco-leadership has been found to offer competitive advantage and improved profitability and performance by widening the leadership capabilities and perspectives available to organisations facing unparalleled challenges in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) operating environment.
In March The Office for Leadership Transition launched my new research into co-leadership and diversity, funded by Clore Leadership and Arts and Humanities Research Council. Chaired by the amazing Sandeep Mahal MBE at the launch event we heard directly from four of the case study organisations – if you missed it you can watch it here. I also recently presented my findings at a seminar about co-leadership at the University of Exeter Business School, convened by Professor Ciara Eastell OBE. At both these events, and talking to the Clore Emerging Leaders this month, I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm many have for co-leadership. To many of us it feels like such a logical model, both from a business-need perspective and in terms of widening the pool of who can apply for executive roles and I expect it’s a model we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future both inside the cultural sector and beyond it. However, currently, except for the Artistic/ Executive Director model in Theatre, co-leadership still far from common practice.
So whilst I began my research asking the question ‘can co-leadership enable greater diversity in leadership?’ I quickly concluded it could and instead found myself asking why isn’t this model more widespread and what could enable boards to more fully consider this option when recruiting senior roles? If you’re interested in the diversity case for co-leadership then you read more in my recent Arts Professional article or in a longer article on my website.
The six main barriers that emerged from the survey and interviews as limiting use of co-leadership in the UK cultural sector currently are summarised in the illustration below, along with the factors driving change in the case study organisations who’s recently adopted the model.
The barriers are:
- A lack of information about how co-leadership works – co-leadership is not yet widely practised or understood; only 26% of survey respondents had experience either of working in a co-leadership role or for an organisation where the model was in use. 90% wanted to understand more about practical arrangements, including how these roles are recruited. Boards also often have reservations about the model and co-leaders I interviewed had often been questioned in detail about practicalities during the selection process.
Therefore I’ve created some practical resources to address this lack of information:
The Co-leadership Library – https://coleadership.info – an online resource to host the growing collection of case studies I’ve written and articles I’ve written or founds useful on the topic. These cover how roles were recruited and how co-leaders approach working together practically.
The Co-leadership User Guide – a practical free guide to what co-leadership is and how it works for potential co-leaders and their Boards. This includes sections tailored to Boards and potential co-leaders.
- Very few roles are proactively advertised as open to co-leadership – 98% of survey respondents said they did not see many roles advertised on this basis. Within the case study examples only one was externally advertised as a co-leadership role, with another two welcoming flexible applications. Four arose through internal reorganisations and a further two resulted from employers changing their leadership model during, or shortly after, recruitment. The other two were externally advertised as single-leader roles with the applicants proposing a job-share solution. I would urge all organisations recruiting senior roles to consider co-leadership as an option and if they are open to receiving job-share and/or co-leadership applications to make this clear in their recruitment materials.
- Lack of recruitment expertise – executive recruitment in the UK cultural sector is led by board members, sometimes supported by internal HR specialists or external consultants although many organisations lack access to relevant expertise. Too often when an outgoing leader departs, the board rushes to replace them without first reviewing what is needed, or assessing the market and designing an effective and inclusive recruitment process. Selecting the CEO is one of the most important roles for any board and I would advise seeking specialist advice around designing and recruiting the role. The cost of external support can be prohibitive for smaller organisations, but even if you can’t afford a full executive search service some consultants will advise on the role design and recruitment elements.
- Trustee preference for full-time leaders – 83% of survey respondents reported that they felt trustees preferred a full-time leader. Even among employers who have adopted and value co-leadership there were initial concerns about the implications of having leaders working part-time. It’s time we recognise this attitude as discriminatory and hopefully the case studies showing how well part-time co-leadership is working in many organisations will help update how boards see flexible working.
- Fear of conflict between leaders or lack of accountability – some boards fear shared responsibility could complicate accountability. Sometimes awareness of co-leadership arrangement that was not successful is viewed as evidence the model doesn’t work; instead of considering that the recruitment may have been flawed or the arrangement not well-managed. There is no reason why co-leadership can’t work well – and lots of examples where it does, as well as over fifty years’ research into what enables success and what needs to be avoided. The User Guide draws on this research to provide advice about how to approach co-leadership to ensure it is successful, for co-leaders and their boards.
- Concerns about additional cost – Boards assume co-leadership involves doubling leadership costs. But whilst most co-leadership arrangements involve some additional cost, usually by 20% in a job-share with two leaders each working three days a week, it can be cost neutral. And in case study organisations which had increased leadership costs they had often been able to create savings elsewhere in the wider staff structure.
What is driving uptake of co-leadership?
Where co-leadership has been introduced the Chair has often been instrumental. In several case studies the chair had championed the model, persuading stakeholders that the benefits outweighed any potential risks. They had also supported the change process when a new model had been introduced, helping ensure internal and external stakeholders understood and had confidence in the new ways of working. The chairs I interviewed had also been willing to accept the responsibility and additional support that working with co-leaders meant for them, partly as a result of the appointments being first-time CEOs.
Hopefully, given the benefits co-leadership offers – including that it enables a larger and more diverse pool of applicants – more Chairs will be willing to accept the challenge of introducing a new leadership model. Others may also find themselves forced to consider new models – three of the case studies initially had difficulty recruiting into their executive vacancies and either had to re-think or re-advertise. Several found themselves having advertised for single roles but realising that they needed to appoint two people instead.
Increasingly, boards are recognising that the way leadership roles have been configured needs to change, to be more inclusive, if they are to attract the leaders needed for the future. Co-leadership is definitely an option more boards are advised to consider when recruiting senior roles, although they will need to capacity and ability to support co-leaders well.