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In the cultural sector, leaders too often fail to reflect the diversity of society - in ethnicity, gender and disability. So, cultural organisations are losing out on the full range of leadership talent, writes Claire Antrobus.

Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah, Co-CEO's of Birmingham Museums Trust.
(L to R) Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah, co-CEO's of Birmingham Museums Trust.

Having found the demands of a leadership incompatible with being the parent of young children myself, I had a hunch co-leadership could offer a solution to the sector’s perennial problem with diversity. So when new research on leadership was being commissioned*, I took the opportunity to explore perceptions of leadership and career progression. I did this via a survey of minoritised early- and mid-career professionals and by interviews with more than 30 leaders and trustees with experience of co-leadership from 15 case study organisations. 

There are many barriers to leadership progression and while co-leadership is not a silver bullet it does offer significant advantages over the solo leader model. Most significantly, co-leadership enables flexible working. Most leaders in the case studies worked part-time alongside caring responsibilities, chronic health issues or artistic practices. Increasing flexibility broadens the range of candidates: 94% of survey respondents were interested in job-sharing and 70% were looking for greater flexibility in senior roles. 

Co-leadership is also well-suited to first-time Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), with all but one co-leader in the case studies in their first CEO role. In contrast, solo CEO roles are widely perceived to be unmanageable: 76% of survey respondents felt demands on these roles were unreasonable and 88% said co-leadership would encourage a wider range of applicants. 

Imposter syndrome is more common among those minoritised in the workplace, and several interviewees said they would not have applied as a solo candidate. And in a sector where turnover can feel like ‘dead man’s shoes’, co-leadership significantly increases the number of leadership positions available. 

Outdated notions of leadership

While co-leadership is a pragmatic choice for some, others see it as a challenge to outdated notions of leadership, as interviewee Euella Jackson of Rising Arts Agency explains: “Co-direction is a direct challenge to traditional, and often masculine, ideas of leadership – this idea that leadership comes from one person, one dictator. Leadership, to us, is a community effort – it’s bigger than an individual. It’s the sharing of power, resources, responsibility and accountability.”

In addition to increasing the diversity of applicants for senior roles, co-leadership offers many other benefits including greater organisational stability and a wider range of skills and experience at senior level, resulting in higher levels of innovation. 

Across the wider non-profit and commercial sectors internationally, more co-CEOs roles and leadership specialists advise that more collaborative structures are needed for today’s uncertain and complex operating conditions. So why are so few roles advertised on this basis and why do boards hesitate to consider it? A staggering 98% of survey respondents rarely saw co-leadership roles advertised and among case study organisations only three had advertised being open to co-leadership. 

Three main concerns loom large for boards: co-leadership is thought to be more expensive, riskier and more complicated to manage, especially if leaders work part-time. However, none of these factors need be a barrier.

It is possible to introduce co-leadership at no additional cost, as Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum has achieved through job-sharing. Others increased the CEO cost only marginally to 1.2 FTE. Increased cost at CEO level was often offset against savings elsewhere in the wider staffing structure. And a recent study in Harvard Business Review suggests companies with co-CEOs actually increased their profits, so a small increase in cost can be a good investment. 

Examples of dysfunctional co-leadership relationships are often cited as evidence the model is flawed. However, we might equally conclude co-leadership simply needs to be well-managed. Exploration of four organisations where co-leadership had failed revealed poor management of the co-leaders by the boards had contributed significantly. 

Problems can be avoided at recruitment stage by ensuring that co-leaders share values and have the requisite skills and self-awareness and then, after appointment, by ensuring joint accountability and appropriate support is in place. 

Boards need to make a greater commitment

Finally, is co-leadership more complicated for the board, and can part-time really leadership work? There is a bias towards full-time candidates among employers with 83% of survey respondents reporting boards prefer full-time leaders. Several disabled leaders had not felt safe to ask about adjustments to roles at recruitment stage and this led some not to apply. Even the boards which went on to recruit co-CEOs had reservations initially about part-time leaders. For example, Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid, first co-CEOs of Birmingham Museum Trust were encouraged to apply separately instead. 

Co-leadership does require additional commitment from the board: the chairs interviewed acknowledged they did work more closely with their co-leaders, although this was partly due to the co-leaders being first-time CEOs. 

While co-leadership isn’t a panacea for the many barriers that global majority, disabled and women leaders experience, it does offer a very effective and more inclusive leadership model. Boards committed to tackling under-representation will be able to find more information in a user guide based on the research which includes advice recruitment and support of co-leaders, as well as case studies. 

In challenging situations, like those facing cultural organisations today, two heads are often better than one, as Niels de Vos, chair of Birmingham Museum Trust explains: “A lot of organisations are feeling we can’t carry on with business as usual, that we need some quite radical transformation in terms of our business models, the way we work with audiences… and that’s not a job for one person.”

But co-leadership needs to be well-designed and well-managed, and boards need to be prepared to share responsibility with co-CEOs, for it to be a success. 

Dr Claire Antrobus is a leadership coach and consultant.

*By the Arts and Humanities Research Council in partnership with Clore Leadership 

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Claire Antrobus in a white woman with short, brown hair and green eyes. She is wearing a grey turtleneck.