Jose Luis Alvarez on sharing power


In his book Sharing Executive Power: Roles and Relationships at the Top, José Luis Álvarez, Associate Dean at the Instituto de Empresa business school in Spain, looks at models of organisational leadership that involve more than one person at the top.

In such a complex world, facing such strenuous demands on time and intellect, doesn't it make sense, argues Álvarez, to divide senior responsibilities, even at the CEO level?

Here he talks to Stuart Crainer about the concept he developed together with Silviya Svejenova at ESADE Business School.

Why focus on the issue of power sharing?

The life of top managers is getting ever more complex. The number of different things they have to attend to in the business environment in order to be successful is continually increasing.

So I am interested in the job of the top manager, and when I was first involved in the power sharing research I was looking at the challenges facing top managers and wondering if it was possible for one person to be sufficiently good at everything.

How did this progress into a research project?

At about the same time as I was considering the complex challenges facing the CEO, I got involved in writing some research cases on the movie industry, together with my research partner Silviya Svejenova at ESADE Business School. We managed to get access to the Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar.

What surprised me was the importance that Almodovar's brother had within the movie making business. Pedro Almodovar takes care of the creative side, while his brother is in charge of all other aspects of the business. Once we had talked to other people we realised that this leadership model is not uncommon in the movie industry. The Coen brothers are another obvious example.

So, as we were already interested in the job of top managers and then, by chance, we ran into these examples in the creative industries, that accelerated our interest in the power sharing concept.

Is power sharing a common phenomenon?

In mature businesses it is frequent, but not common. In start-ups it is fairly common and in family businesses it is extremely common.

I'm assuming that there are some advantages and disadvantages to power sharing. If we take the CEO as a lone figure initially; what are the problems associated with being a lone CEO?

One issue is that the lone CEO could become a kind of bottleneck, in the sense that he cannot cope with all the demands placed on him or her. It is a kind of cognitive limitation that human beings have.

If you are working for a large firm, there are a number of tensions that managers deal with. Paying attention to clients and paying attention to operations, paying attention to the outside or inside of the organisation, paying attention to the future, or to the press. You are focused on a strategy or on tactics. You are focused on control, or innovation; on numbers or on people; on maintenance, or change.

There are so many dilemmas that no manager could cope with all of them, at least not simultaneously, the more complex the organisation, the more that power sharing makes sense.

Okay, so one challenge for the lone CEO is the bottleneck and another the inability to focus on more than one area. What other challenges?

There is the issue of succession planning. So in that sense, having someone at your level or below you that's been groomed, that has learning experience, that is very beneficial for preparing them to take on responsibility in the near future.

Another challenge is being able to deal with the present and the future. There is a distance between the present and the future, and that distance may mean a different person needs to take care of each.

Why is the lone CEO the status quo?

We have this idea of organisations as pyramids, so at the top there's only space for one person. Also there are tactical reasons in the following sense: careers are individualistic, people are just not prepared for or used to sharing power. People are not used to trusting someone.

So, one problem is that perhaps we need that kind of arrangement, but we don't have the people ready for it.

Moving on to the practical aspects of power sharing at the top, how does the situation arise?

There are different ways of doing this. You could have two co-CEOs, or two co-Presidents who develop a trusting relationship. Or maybe you have no objective justification but there is someone you enjoy working with. Why shouldn't this apply to management?

Another way is where a friendship originates outside the working relationship. This might be a common mechanism in family businesses.

Let's say that we've got a duo. You've looked at a lot of dual relationships, what is the dynamic of the relationship?

One way it might work is where the two people involved do the same thing, for instance. So either person could deal with clients, finance or any other area. That is one way to do it, but it is a difficult way unless there is tremendous trust.

The other possibility is, of course, to have different roles assigned to each one, so for instance, one does the public relations and the other deals with the management of the company. One focuses on creativity, the other on controlling. It is a separation of the roles. So you divide the role in two that is commonly assigned to one person.

So, it could be two people in one box, or two people in two smaller boxes.

What are the key factors that make the power sharing relationship more likely to succeed?

It is a very delicate arrangement; you cannot establish rules and guidelines to make it work. Above all, you need enough trust and mutual understanding between the two people involved. This takes time, so in a way the first requirement is time. That's a critical thing.

Another important element is the rules about the exit. For instance, if one person sharing power at the top goes, do both have to go?

Then there is the issue of politics. You don't want politics in the relationship. If one of the duo starts doing that, it signals that the relationship is breaking down.

Are there any other advantages to the power sharing arrangement other than those you have already outlined?

Another reason for having two bosses at the top is the balance of professional and private life. I don't know a single CEO who doesn't work like a slave, so some sort of sharing arrangement could help here.

Is there competitive advantage to be had from sharing roles at the top?

We cannot go as far as to say that for definite, because we don't have the data to do that. Our intention is to pose a kind of dualistic view of power at the top, not so much to recommend it, but to draw attention to the fact that perhaps we have a rather narrow mindset on how power at the top should be structured. So it is another option on the table.

About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.