The Co-CEO ship

Last Wednesday the My Food Bag board approved something which is widely recognised as one of the key failures in start-ups. Something most VC firms get heart palpitations at the thought of having to unravel and something which ultimately can cause a lot of friction within a business.

The Co-CEO ship.

Our Chair Kevin Roberts (former Global CEO now Chair of Saatchi and Saatchi) concluded that this was the the first time in his business career (spanning 50 years) that he not only supported a Co-CEO title but it truly made sense in a business.

It all began while I was at a speaking engagement earlier this year, when I realised that for the 100th time I had described my title as ‘Joint CEO’ in conjunction with my husband. And it bothered me that while at My Food Bag we take great pride in being authentic and direct – we weren’t being authentic with a fundamental part of our leadership structure.

Later that same week one of our early joiners, having worked for MFB for 3 years, posted to our Facebook page that she had CEO approval to open a new region for My Food Bag.
She hadn’t spoken to me.

At that point it dawned on me that while it was unspoken; our entire team already accepted and supported what we are. A Co leadership. It didn’t confuse them, cause friction or create a sense of split leadership. In fact it had the opposite effect, it created unity and a clear sense of direction. The only thing confusing about it was not being transparent about who we were.

That is when my crusade began to update James and my title. James was resistant or ambivalent at best. He didn’t care about the title, he didn’t need others to rubber stamp what he knew, because just like everyone else inside MFB – he already knew he was the CEO.

As we gained board approval and made the announcement in front of our team last Wednesday. I think the only thought playing on our teams mind was “wasn’t that the case already”? Or as KR (Kevin Roberts) described it “You are Cos in every aspect of your life together, you co-habit, co-parent and you are co-business partners”. For all intents and purposes you already are Co-CEOs. Through making this decision you will stop people asking, what is often the case with CEO and COO titles,‘who is really in charge’? The reality of it is that you are both in charge.

So now to the fundamentals – how do we structure it and how does decision making work?

James and I have always created clear division inside our businesses. Inside Au Pair Link I managed our product, customer sales and operations. James managed finance, IT and marketing.

When we founded My Food Bag we split the business the same way. I manage our Head of Recipe Development (our product), our CXO (our customer) and our CPO (our operations). Unsurprisingly James again manages our CFO, our Head of Digital Product and our Head of Marketing. There are definitely areas where we cross over, we are equally passionate marketers (although James is a better technical marketer than me), we both take a great degree of interest in our operational processes and while I don’t scrutinise our finances to the degree James does – it’s a clear area where we both take full ownership.

In terms of how we lead jointly, we more often than not make decisions together and feel as if this is the best way for us to reach the optimum outcome for our customer. On the odd occasions when this isn’t necessary or warranted we both support each others individual decision making authority and gut feel. Having worked together for close to a decade it’s impossible to divide and conquer us (as much as our 3 year old might try). We fundamentally have a huge degree of professional and personal respect for each other and therefore that tactic is lost on us.

At the end of the day, with this structure we’ve created a 100M (run rate business) in less than 3 years. We employ about 80 My Food Bag foodies Trans-Tasman and we have created a whole new food category in New Zealand, in that process becoming New Zealand’s’ 3rd largest food retailer.

So while Co-CEO titles are certainly not the norm I struggle to think of many kiwi businesses that have achieved what MFB has in 3 short years. We are for all intents and purposes an untraditional business, built on a group of people who challenge the norm, think laterally and make big bold decisions. We love that we are different to everyone else and this is simply another step in showcasing just how unique we are as a company.