Having Two Bosses for One Company Is Maybe Not the Best Idea

Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano of Gianfranco Ferré.

They say two heads are better than one. They maybe don’t know what they’re talking about. In a fascinating approach to studying the notion of hierarchy within a company, researchers analyzed the critical reception of collections from the world’s top fashion designers and found a curious distinction. Designs from the houses with co-creative directors were consistently ranked as less creative than the clothing from houses with solo leadership.

This despite the fact that some evidence suggests that co-leadership structures are becoming increasingly common. When Larry Ellison left software firm Oracle in 2014, for example, he replaced himself with two successors: current co-CEOs Mark Hurd and Safra Catz. And there is some evidence that the dual-leadership structure is a popular one: One recent study of publicly traded firms showed a positive market reaction to the announcement of co-CEOs. And maybe that’s not so surprising — many people tend to intuitively prefer the idea of equality to hierarchy.

And yet few studies have examined what actually happens to a company’s output after such an arrangement. In a preliminary study, presented recently at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual meeting in San Diego, Columbia University’s Adam Galinsky shared the results of a project he worked on with INSEAD’s Frederic Godart. They examined 21 seasons of fashion shows from 315 houses across the globe, resulting in ten years’ worth of data, covering 2000 to 2010. They also looked at ten years of biannual creativity rankings from Journal du Textile, a leading French fashion trade magazine.

Consistently, collections from the houses with two creative directors were ranked as being less creative by Journal du Textile as compared to the collections from houses with only one. For example, Saint Laurent, Céline, Lanvin, and Jean Paul Gaultier ranked among the most creative designers, with creative being defined here by the trade magazine as “something novel and useful” — and each of these houses had a single leader. In contrast, houses with co-leaders were more likely to miss the mark creatively speaking. Among these was Gianfranco Ferré; in 2007, Roberto Rimondi and Tommaso Aquilano were appointed to the top spot at this house. The two are respected, talented designers and yet their collaborations were not perceived as being quite as successful as some of the collections from single-led houses. Incidentally, the pair was let go in 2011.

But there is an exception here: When the co-leaders are also co-founders, things turn out okay. Dolce & Gabbana is a great example from this data set; so is Proenza Schouler. Outside of the fashion world, think of Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who seem to have done just fine with their co-led company. This wrinkle in the results may help explain why things go wrong for teams with two leaders: Co-founders share a professional past, having dared to start some entrepreneurial venture out of scratch. They’ve also shared a vision for their firm from the start. Each of these things seems to create a sense of trust and shared responsibility that may help the pair continue to collaborate successfully.

Especially with that contrast in mind, it’s not hard to imagine why the dual-leadership structure might not always work out. Leaders who did not choose to work together but who were appointed by someone else — like at Oracle or Gianfranco Ferré — may have opposing visions for the creative direction their firm should head toward. With one pulling one way and the other pulling the opposite way, the collective results may indeed be more likely to come out muddled and confused, without a cohesive sense of purpose (because there wasn’t one). This effect has been seen in laboratory studies, too, Galinsky told Science of Us. “When you put three people in a room together, and you prime them all with power, they do worse on a task together,” he said. “There’s this idea of dominance coming into play.”

In addition to the co-founders loophole, there might be another exception here — co-leadership may work just fine if each role is clearly defined and independent of the other. Traditionally, newspapers have divided editorial and business operations, with separate people heading each; likewise, in hospitals there are separate leaders overseeing the medical duties and the facilities maintenance. The researchers theorize that the more interdependent the co-leaders are, the worse off their firm will fare — but that’s a question for future research. For now, the implication seems to be that rather than the “two heads are better than one” cliché, the applicable idiom may come from the sports world: If you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have one.