Shared Leadership: An Opportunity for EO Companies

Employee-owned companies already have some strategic advantages over their conventionally owned counterparts. They can create an ownership culture that doesn’t ring hollow. They have a powerful incentive and retention tool in the ESOP. Most can save on taxes, so cash flow is generally healthier.

But there’s another opportunity that only a few employee-owned companies have so far taken advantage of: shared leadership.

Businesspeople everywhere have grown accustomed to the CEO-as-king model of corporate management. But the model is only a convention called into being by customary structures of ownership. Founders who invest their money and time in starting a business naturally expect full ownership and control. Absentee owners—stock-market investors, venture capitalists, passive family shareholders—want to know that one person is accountable for running the business and delivering results.

Other ownership structures, such as partnerships, some co-ops, and ESOP companies, don’t need this single-point accountability. The owners are on site and involved. They can see who is making any given decision, and they can judge the performance of multiple leaders. Even if they aren’t directly responsible for selecting the board, as in most ESOPs, they can make their influence felt.

This is one reason why many partnerships rotate the managing director role. It’s why some have joint CEOs responsible for different parts of the business. And it’s a reason why a few ESOP companies, notably Eileen Fisher and King Arthur Flour, have been experimenting with shared leadership.

There’s another reason as well. A successful company these days is a complex enterprise. And the management of complexity is hard.

Consider King Arthur Flour, a $150 million business with some 375 employees that is wholly owned by its ESOP. King Arthur’s bucolic headquarters and post-and-beam retail store in rural Vermont mask the fact that it is a diverse and complicated company serving a wide variety of customers across the United States.

One of its businesses is the flour itself, which can be found in supermarkets around the country. King Arthur is a premium brand, so protein content and other quality markers have to be tightly controlled. The company has developed innovative varieties to respond to new consumer tastes, such as white whole wheat flour and gluten-free products. It has also created a line of baking mixes that are finding their way onto grocery-store shelves.

Next is the food-service business, which provides flour and other products in bulk to local bakeries and restaurants. That’s a different market involving more consultative selling. King Arthur has a separate salesforce to call on those customers.

King Arthur’s Vermont retail store

Then there’s the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business, which has grown rapidly in recent years. Through its website and monthly catalogue mailings, the company offers not just flours and mixes but virtually everything related to baking, including specialized pans, utensils, ingredients, recipe books and so on. (Check out the shopping website to get an idea of the diversity.) DTC procurement and fulfillment—plus the necessary brand-building and marketing efforts through catalogue, website, e-mail, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—require wholly different capabilities than the wholesale flour business.

And finally there’s the retail store, known internally as Camelot. “It’s a mini–King Arthur sitting there in one place,” says co-CEO Ralph Carlton—and it has become a destination for baking fans, much the way Bass Pro Shops or L.L. Bean stores are destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. Patrons cluster in the café, snap up the wares on the shelves, sample fresh-baked goods from the bakery, and take classes at the in-house baking school. The Walmart-size parking lot bespeaks an attraction right up there with the famous Ben and Jerry’s ice cream plant, an hour or so to the north.

Why would we ever expect one man or woman to master all these different businesses? When today’s King Arthur Flour was run by one individual—from 1999 to 2014—CEO Steve Voigt relied heavily on leaders such as Suzanne McDowell, head of HR, and Karen Colberg, responsible for marketing and brand development. When Voigt retired, King Arthur’s board decided to formalize the joint-leadership arrangement, eventually naming McDowell, Colberg, and finance chief Carlton as co-CEOs. The troika has indisputably been successful, overseeing a steady five-year increase in the company’s revenue and earnings. By embracing complexity, the three executives have continued King Arthur’s evolution into a unique brand that doesn’t depend on any one market or business model.

Which isn’t to say that things won’t change. At the end of July, McDowell announced her intention to step away from the chief executive role in favor of a new-to-King-Arthur role focused on sustainability and social responsibility. That will leave Colberg, 54, and Carlton, 63, as co-CEOs. Both are committed to maintaining the shared leadership.

So what are the lessons? One, obviously, is that the shared-leadership model can be highly effective, provided you have people with the right values. “This works because of who we are, in terms of our commitment to shared leadership,” says Carlton. “None of us has the ambition to be sole CEO, which is basically a death sentence for the shared leadership model.” Another is that a company has to be flexible. McDowell’s departure may mean that King Arthur stays with two leaders for a while, eventually goes back to a single CEO, or even expands again to three. Says Carlton, “I can imagine X years from now we’re expanding into a new area and there’s a person who’s so influential to the growth of the company, you want that person as co-CEO. I hope the board is open and flexible to determine what’s the best leadership for the company at a given time.”

But there are a couple of other lessons in here as well. Shared leadership is an option not available to most companies, and when it is done right it offers benefits that elude single-CEO businesses. It brings collective intelligence to bear on major decisions. It multiplies the expertise and experience lodged in the proverbial corner office. “You have three minds worrying about the internal complexity and the external complexity,” says Colberg. Shared leadership also mitigates the time-honored challenge of every successful company, which is to find a suitable successor to an effective and respected CEO. When a twosome or threesome takes over—again, assuming they are respected individuals who are committed to the sharing—the new arrangement feels different, and invidious comparisons are less likely.

Finally, it’s worth thinking about the message that shared leadership sends to the organization. “Culturally, it sends a strong statement to your company about collaboration,” says Carlton. “Compared to the CEO as dictator, this sends a message that collaboration is important. And listening. And respect.” Adds Colberg: “It makes so much sense for us because of our culture. Our shared ownership has been in place forever. And open-book management, and transparency, and communication. This model works and fits really well.”

In other words, shared leadership may not be for everybody, and it’s not necessarily forever. But for the right company in the right situation at the right time—King Arthur seems to be one—shared leadership is a powerful option that can turbocharge employee ownership.