In September of 2021, Abacus began a search for a new CEO. The world was still in the middle of a pandemic, our workforce was exhausted, and the global economy was starting to show serious signs of slowing down. We had been working hard as C-level executives navigating the biggest disruption to the business landscape in decades, yet the two of us threw our hats in the ring to co-lead a company of 70 people as co-CEOs.
What ensued was a multi-month interview process, a deep dive into the pros and cons of co-leadership, and many discussions about the concept of “power.” When our Board of Directors chose the two of us to co-lead this multi-billion dollar firm, we were elated. The industry – and, admittedly, some of our clients – had questions.
We welcomed the skepticism, rolled up our sleeves, and got to work. One year later, our great experiment has gone better than expected and we are sharing our early lessons in hopes of continuing conversations about the benefits of shared leadership in business. Here’s what we have learned so far:
If It’s About the Power, You’re Doing it Wrong
Leadership is a funny thing. It can be hard to pinpoint a good leader, but it’s pretty easy to spot a bad one. A leader that is so focused on the power of the position is missing the point. Good leadership is subtle. It’s not about power – it’s about responsibility. Leadership is love for your company and employees. Leadership is making the hard decisions, quietly doing what is right, and not needing to take credit. Leadership is a million small decisions and actions that add up to tangible results. Leadership is not about you, it’s about everyone else. If it’s about you, everyone loses.
Neither of us cared about the title. We cared about making a difference. The title wasn’t a goal, it was merely a means to that end.
1 + 1 = 3
We often heard the familiar phrase of “it’s lonely at the top.” We wondered why? Did it have to be lonely? What if you had someone you could be totally honest with, who had all the same information that you did, who you could talk things out with? Or lean on when things are tough?
Managing a company is an immense responsibility. You have the full chessboard of information and have to make decisions that people don’t always like or understand. You have to answer to shareholders but also build trust and confidence with employees – all while driving the company towards growth and profitability. It is grueling work at times. Having someone to fortify those decisions makes them a tiny bit easier to make. A sanity check is a good thing.
We have found that some decisions do take longer, but the quality of the decisions is better. And when we have to make the hard calls, it really helps to have a teammate ready to pick you up off the floor.
Do the Hard Work
People have asked us if we fight or disagree? The answer is yes. The commitment we made to our company was our disagreements would happen behind closed doors. We would be a unified front, support each other publicly, and eliminate triangulation (basically, don’t use mom against mom – we won’t play that game).
We are different people who process and work in different ways. We have had so many conversations hashing it out, testing and recalibrating better ways to work together. Trying to understand why Neela needs to spend 12 hours in a spreadsheet to feel better about a particular board presentation; figuring out why Mary Beth needs two fully open days to visualize our ten year plan and the definition of the tangible impact we need to make.
Rather than try to make each other work differently, we support each other to be successful in our distinct ways. We divide and conquer tasks that bring each of us joy. We push each other to stretch our weak areas. We call each other on our bullshit.
Trust Your Gut
The vision we pitched our Board of Directors was one of sustainable growth that put the client and employee experiences front and center. We doubled down on company communication, transparency, and structure. We updated company processes and policies to enhance the client experience and created more tools and resources to interact with along the client journey. We highlighted our team approach to servicing clients. Internally, we shared our quarterly company financials, hosted “Coffee with the CEOs,” published information about our partnership track, and engaged the firm on our quarterly and annual goals. We scheduled coffee chats and fun employee lunches. We held a company-wide retreat in Boston with the sole goal of fostering connection.
And you know what? We think it’s working. Our business key performance indicators are trending in the right direction. Our team has shared feedback that they feel well informed about the future of the company and the part they play in that future.
Why did we opt to run together? Quite simply, we brought different skills to the table and thought the company would do better with both of us at the helm. We recognized that the role of CEO is quite broad and requires time and capability in many diverse areas. We rounded each other out, creating both breadth and depth of expertise.
And, lastly, it’s a lot more fun.
Neela Hummel, Co-CEO
Mary Beth Storjohann, Co-CEO