It’s said to be lonely at the top when running a business, but as this business owner explains, appointing a co-CEO can be a beneficial way of positioning the company, and oneself, for growth.
Allan Waddell (pictured, left) founded Kablamo, a cloud software development firm, in May 2017, having previously built and sold another business. And, as he admits, he naturally gravitated towards the actual work of the business more than the running of the business itself, especially managing its finances.
For a mixture of business and personal reasons, he decided not to continue running Kablamo alone. So, mid last year, he took the plunge and appointed a co-CEO, Angus Dorney.
My Business spoke with Mr Waddell to find out why he took this approach, whether it has been worthwhile and what insights he can share from his journey so far.
Why did you decide to take on a co-CEO?
Someone wise once said to me, “You’ll be happiest at work when you are kicking goals doing what you do well”. Having already built and sold another consulting business, I knew what my strengths were, but most importantly I knew where I needed support.
When it comes to the technical, product development and sales sides of the business, I’m completely in my element. But I always knew I’d feel more comfortable if I had someone handling the financial and operations aspects of Kablamo.
That’s what makes Angus such a perfect fit; I come up with the ideas and he executes them.
How long did it take you to make that decision?
In the past, I’ve been bitten by having too much undeserved confidence in my leadership team, so since starting Kablamo, I have been aligning myself with mentors and leaders whom I’d one day think could make the leap from mentor to business partner.
Angus is someone I’ve known and respected for a long time, and we were both considering the opportunity for more than a year.
“Leadership, and leader change, makes a team nervous.”
What fears did you have about the move, and how have/are you allaying those fears?
Leadership, and leader change, makes a team nervous. The Kablamo team is made up of incredibly smart people, but smart people naturally have a great deal of self-awareness, which can go hand in hand with self-doubt.
Bringing highly skilled and experienced oversight can sometimes trigger defensive behaviour and fear. Because of this, I didn’t expect the team to trust a new leader immediately, but with Angus, I already knew he would be a great fit culturally, so I could see trust on the horizon.
Did you hunt more widely for the ideal candidate before making the appointment?
I knew Kablamo would benefit from having someone drive the operational side of the business.
Having known Angus for sometime, he was always at the top of my list to share the helm with me at Kablamo — not only is he a great human being, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone with the wealth of experience he has.
He was a perfect fit, both in terms of his skills and how he fit into Kablamo culturally.
What has having a co-CEO enabled you to do so far that you would have been restricted from by flying solo?
Personally, the biggest benefits of having Angus as co-CEO is that I now have more time and our team has more executive skills.
While leading Kablamo by myself, I was in charge of everything — from business management, HR and sales to account management and operations.
Having Angus oversee the operations and financial side of Kablamo gives me more time to focus on building our vision — both from a business and product standpoint — as well as ensuring our culture is second to none.
What challenges have you faced in terms of decision-making and lines of authority, both from employees, clients and even between yourselves?
I anticipated some teething issues with bringing on a new leader, but the key to making this transition run as smoothly as possible was transparency. I was completely honest and up front with the team about why I was bringing Angus on board, and what responsibilities he would have in the business.
Equally, Angus and I clearly defined between ourselves how we would divide the CEO role.
Of course, at the start there were times when it was difficult to hand over control, but by communicating clearly and frequently, we’ve been able to solidify the relationship. When it comes to clients, Angus is well known and highly respected throughout the industry, so he was embraced almost instantly.
“While this was the whole idea of moving to the co-CEO model, the change from autonomy to observation was abrupt.”
What challenges have arisen specifically because of the co-CEO model?
I won’t lie, the co-CEO model did take some getting used to. While I was leading Kablamo myself, I had the final say in everything and my decisions were largely made without scrutiny. With Angus, I now have eyeballs on me and my decisions, which I never had in the past.
While this was the whole idea of moving to the co-CEO model, the change from autonomy to observation was abrupt.
The key to addressing this, we’ve found, is clear and constant communication — if one of us doesn’t agree with the decision the other has made, we discuss it. We don’t let disagreements or clashes of opinion fester.
What advice would you give to other business leaders about the co-CEO model?
This model isn’t for everyone. If by nature you have counter-dependency issues, this power-sharing model will end your happiness.
There are a few key things to keep in mind if you want to explore the co-CEO model.
The first is to have a prior relationship with whoever you’re considering. If you already know much about how they work and how you each get along, you’ll have a greater insight into how the model will work in practice — without this, you’re basically crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
Second, communication is absolutely critical. I can’t stress this enough. You both need to know exactly where you stand, and the only way to achieve this is to speak with each other frankly and frequently.
Finally, sharing for sharing’s sake will inevitably lead to complications. You must have clearly defined realms of responsibility. There will naturally be some overlap, but if you’re absolutely clear on what parts of the business fall under whose control, then each CEO is empowered to own their part.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.