In 2019, Mike Marsiglia and I took the jobs of co-CEOs at Atomic Object when Atomic’s founder Carl Erickson stepped down from the role after leading Atomic for eighteen years. The three of us worked closely together on this transition and the rationale for moving to a co-CEO model.
Having co-CEOs isn’t common, and I’ve found that people are interested to learn more about why we did it. This post shares the context and our rationale for taking the co-CEO approach. In future posts, I’ll share details on how we structured the job and how we work together.
History & Context
One of Atomic’s values is Think Long Term. We have a goal to be a 100-year-old company and stay privately held by employees.
Mike and I have been with Atomic since 2001 and 2004, respectively, and have worked closely with Carl since 2009, eventually becoming Managing Partners. Carl did a great job of getting an unusually early start on broad employee ownership and equity succession. We also knew we had to work on a succession plan for key people. Founder and CEO succession is risky. Doing it wrong can ruin or destroy a company.
We started talking about Carl’s future succession around 2012. The three of us worked closely together on company-level work. Over the years, we talked about the co-CEO approach at times. We also talked about more conventional alternatives like a CEO and COO model. It was valuable to start these conversations early and have time on our side.
In 2019, we moved forward with a CEO succession plan and structure that will hopefully serve Atomic well into the future. Being relentlessly dissatisfied with the status quo is one of Atomic’s traits, and we’ve never shied away from unconventional approaches to our work. We decided to move forward with the co-CEO job structure, and Carl moved into an executive chairman position. We plan to add others to a governing board in the future.
Our model includes accountability between co-CEOs, between the co-CEOs and executive chairman, and between the co-CEOs and company. Our accountability structure provides a healthy context for us to plan, align, execute, and report in a disciplined fashion.
Perspective & Feedback
The co-CEO model creates a peer relationship with safety for healthy debate and feedback. Mike and I can discuss and debate various sides of key decisions in the early stages of getting aligned as peers. We have checks and balances built into our peer relationship. We bring complementary skills and perspectives to our discussions. We can safely give each other feedback and help each other grow.
As co-CEOs, Mike and I have the ability to relate to a broader set of people than we would individually. This helps us translate the perspectives of others into our work as peers and allows us to better communicate and work with others across the organization.
The co-CEOs and executive chairman relationships provide much more than accountability. This relationship also provides organizational performance enhancement through mentorship, wisdom, and critical review from an experienced perspective.
Mike and I continue to work with Carl on long-term, strategic considerations. Carl contributes to our work from a perspective deeply rooted in Atomic and a broad business perspective that isn’t wholly consumed by running Atomic.
I want Atomic to continue this model into the future and have previous co-CEOs serve on the board so they may continue to provide continuity and wisdom to Atomic. It just seems wasteful to have previous leaders walk away with all of their knowledge, experience, and capacity to continue driving success.
A business is a dynamic organism integrating into the environment of a dynamic market. Leading a company comes with a large weight of responsibility and the need to navigate into the future through uncertainty.
The co-CEO model helps make the job more sustainable. CEOs have emotions and can feel fatigued just like everybody else. The co-CEO model:
- Removes the compounded stress of feeling isolated while carrying a high-level of responsibility.
- Allows for sharing the psychological weight of responsibility and stress, and it provides additional stamina to do the job.
- Creates a peer relationship to safely admit feelings of fatigue, doubt, etc., provides someone who fully understands, and helps us move forward.
- Benefits from one person bringing new energy and positivity when the other is fatigued.
We believe the co-CEO approach and the executive chairman position will reduce future succession risk and make the organization more resilient. This structure creates continuity for many scenarios including:
- One co-CEO stays constant, the other co-CEO retires, and a new co-CEO starts.
- There’s a gap period while a single co-CEO is recruiting or training a second co-CEO. (This could come from an unplanned transition caused by a serious accident, death, etc.)
- The executive chairman becomes more active in operations to get through unusual circumstances (like a single co-CEO gap period).
- A co-CEO takes on the executive chairman position to continue serving the company in a part-time fashion. (This offers the value of mentorship and checks and balances with a historical perspective, experience, and cultural alignment.)
The above scenarios all sound better than trying to replace a single leader with another individual.
Job Structure & the Mechanics of Working Together
Carl, Mike, and I have been working within this model for over sixteen months, and it’s going well. I continue to believe in our rationale and the benefits of the structure.
Of course, the structure alone isn’t sufficient for success. I believe the devil is in the details of how to organize responsibilities, share work, and stay aligned. I share more about how we organize and do the job in the rest of the series:
Atomic’s Co-CEO Model
- Atomic’s Co-CEO Model, Part 4 – The Lived Experience - December 3, 2020
- Atomic’s Co-CEO Model, Part 3 – Communication Flow - November 5, 2020
- Atomic’s Co-CEO Model, Part 2 – Structure - October 22, 2020
- Atomic’s Co-CEO Model, Part 1 – Rationale - October 8, 2020
- Keeping Sight of True North During a Crisis - May 4, 2020