Sharing the weight of running a business through joint leadership can have many advantages, from reduced pressure, diversity of thought and an additional decision-making perspective to call upon.
Peter Marsden, executive chairman, and Eman Al-Hillawi, CEO from Birmingham-based business change consultancy Entec Si, have been putting their heads together as joint leaders of the business since the early 2000s. With many lessons learned over the years, here are their top tips for those considering a business partnership and why they believe two heads are better than one.
If the right balance is achieved, a joint partnership can strengthen a business, offer different perspectives and skills, and really ensure all aspects of a business are getting the leadership attention it needs – from growth, development, processes and people – the benefits of having two heads in the business, far outweighs the challenges.
Having shared values while encouraging diversity of skills is vital and recognising strengths in one another can give a competitive advantage. Being able to achieve a unified vision, but bring different skills to the table, allows room for alternative perspectives, growth and uniqueness to shine through, ensuring you both aren’t speaking into an ‘echo chamber’ environment.
Taking the time to thoroughly understand and pin down your shared values, and ultimately business values, will pay dividends in the long run and reduce the likelihood of having opposing views when considering business decisions. When considering a joint leadership option, it is important to find a combination of skills that not only work well for the day-to-day business but also complement existing talent.
For leaders looking at joint leadership opportunities, separating the roles based on individual skillset can be beneficial. For Eman and Peter, the demarcation of roles came quite naturally but for many years it was more of a joint CEO relationship but with different responsibilities.
When the decision was made to grow the business, each took a different approach to leadership that catered to key pillars within the business. For Eman, her role as CEO focuses on building client relations and showcasing the brand to the external market, which complements her logical yet person-centric approach and a detailed eye for the operational side of the business. However, Peter’s strategic skills make him the perfect fit for Executive Chair with a focus on the future growth and development side of the business, addressing the strategic vision, with oversight but still providing more strategic consulting expertise. Their skills complemented each other’s, allowing them to work in unison rather than competing to be the ‘boss’.
Working jointly with someone else, especially within high pressure leadership roles, can occasionally lead to a difference of opinion, and in senior positions, avoiding or alleviating tension should be a main priority to ensure the smooth running of any business.
From experience, Eman and Peter found that tension only grew when communication hadn’t been given enough attention. Whether due to busy schedules, physical distance or keeping pace with the many moving levers in a fast-growing business, they quickly realised that maintaining regular and transparent communication significantly improved the success of the business. Since then, communication has been a central component to the way they work, not only by communicating with each other but also with the entire workforce at Entec Si.
It’s important to keep reviewing the channels, formats and frequency of communication. As the business grows, so do the opportunities and also the challenges, and what once worked with a 10-strong team, may not be fit for purpose for 30 team members.
It would be remiss to think that in a long and fruitful working relationship, that disagreements aren’t going to occur. The art is in finding a way to positively navigating them. In the case of Eman and Peter, who have over 20 years of shared business experience, they understand that what works for some issues may not work for another. When facing a difference of opinion, they recommend that both parties communicate their point, while also seeking an alternative solution and then taking a step back reflect and reconvene to reach a solution at a later date.
The attributes needed to co-lead a business bear a striking resemblance to those needed for a successful marriage; friendship, trust, communication and compromise. Couples may well disagree about certain things, however, they also support each other’s decisions, challenge each other, and learn from their mistakes - just as joint leaders should.
Eman and Peter have found the benefits to joint leadership to be bountiful, and the ability to share the workload and have a unique perspective during the decision-making process has helped Entec Si to reach new levels of success.
Pictured from left to right: Eman Al-Hillawi, CEO, and Peter Marsden, Executive Chair of Birmingham-based change consultancy, Entec Si