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Blog/May 2, 2018

Shared Leadership – Part I: Recognizing the Need for a New Leadership Structure in Succession Planning

The concept of shared leadership has become an innovative and sometimes controversial solution to succession planning. This is where a few leaders are selected to fill a traditionally singular role in an organization. Some see this approach as a way to avoid making the difficult decision to select one individual from several contenders for a leadership role, while contrary perspectives say it’s a sustainable solution for the growing demands on one person in a senior leadership role.

FMI has been studying this concept across the engineering and construction industry and has seen this solution work well – as long as it’s a good fit for the organization and the individuals involved.

The biggest hurdle in this process is recognizing when a shared leadership model is the right solution versus maintaining a traditional model of one leader in a key leadership role. Organizations wrestling with this question should consider these four key areas before making a decision:

  1. Current and future marketplace demands
  2. Company vision and strategy
  3. Internal culture
  4. The pool of individuals being considered for succession

Marketplace Demands

The capacity for one individual to hold extensive knowledge and experience in all business trends across our industry is unrealistic today and will only become more so in future years. This is especially true for organizations that operate in changing markets and innovating rapidly. Seamlessly leading a business that’s required to adapt to consistent technology, project delivery and partnering innovations has become an expectation.

The vast amount of information that senior leaders are expected to absorb and respond to has required leaders to work longer hours, thus increasing their stress levels and ultimately creating anxiety to constantly deliver on these unrealistic expectations. Spreading this responsibility across two or three individuals significantly reduces the risk of burnout and turnover in the most critical leadership roles.

Company Vision & Strategy

Organizations that want to grow into new geographies or expand the scope of services agree that the volume of decision making and need for diverse skill sets increases significantly. Sharing leadership roles lets several leaders focus their time and energy in a few key areas, rather than trying to cover all of them at one time.

Leaders who have complementary natural abilities and areas of passion are the best combination for shared leadership because they can balance out one another’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, co-leaders over geographic region may have different areas of interest that can be leveraged with a dual leadership model.

One co-leader who enjoys traveling and spending time with clients and office leaders across different regions, for example, can spend his or her time preparing for these meetings and remain mentally present when onsite. At the same time, the other co-leader who enjoys creating and testing strategies for new innovative services can spend his or her time at their main office, driving an equally important strategy forward. Sharing the responsibility increases efficiency towards achieving your vision and helps you remain agile when obstacles arise. This option literally provides the opportunity for leadership to be in two places at one time.

Company Culture

Shared leadership structures work best in organizations with preexisting cultures of collaboration and generally flat leadership structures. Not only are the leaders comfortable working closely together, but employees across the organization are comfortable going to different individuals for support or advice.

Cultures that demonstrate strong collaboration have a history of shared decision making across several business units, consistent feedback (individually and across teams) and reliance on various subject matter experts when appropriate. Companies that have a tradition of accountability for leadership roles and responsibilities based on hierarchy tend to struggle in shared leadership models.

If the succession pool of candidates has worked together often, shared resources and have worked on projects together, they will typically see high return on shared leadership models since they have a pre-established foundation of trust and collaboration. Because building this foundation within leaders takes time and consistency, forcing this model on future leaders who are not accustomed to this environment is not an ideal option.

Pool of Candidates

If the candidates being considered for future roles demonstrate a genuine level of trust with one another, complementary leadership styles and a shared vision for your organization’s future, a shared leadership structure may be a good fit. Larger organizations have defined success for future roles that require an expansive set of natural abilities and deep expertise – both of which are hard to find in one single person.

Splitting a role among a few individuals offers a solution that helps address the expanding organizational expectations for the role and improve the quality of life for the individuals. By having two individuals operating in the same role, individual leaders can attain:

  • Healthier work-life balance – individual leaders are more likely to unplug during time off knowing they have a counterpart covering their absence and are willing to take time off more frequently than when they operate in a role solo.
  • Reduced stress – sharing leadership responsibilities across the company reduces the pressure and stress to deliver on all areas of the business at all times.
  • Increased trust – addressing internal leadership challenges and making difficult decisions together increase trust and reliability among co-leaders.
  • Improved job satisfaction – working within their area of passion and natural abilities and being able to rely on others to support areas of weakness has increased the overall engagement and satisfaction for co-leaders.

Shared leadership structures don’t fit well with every organization, especially those with a low pipeline for succession or cultures that rely on a hierarchy of leaders for strategic decision making and execution. If the components listed above resonate with your organization, shared leadership may be an opportunity worth considering in your succession planning process.

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