Two-in-a-box: A modest success story of collective leadership

 

With ThoughtWorks increasingly using a collective leadership structure in the organization, the experience that the Workshops team had from 2012-2013 can inform other leadership collectives.

George: …But maybe the two of us, working together at full capacity, could do the job of one normal man.

Jerry: Then each of us would only have be like a half man. That sounds about right!

— From Seinfeld, The Summer of George

When Patti Mandarino moved on from the ThoughtWorks Workshops team (which provided coaching and training services for clients) at the end of 2011, the team had a leadership void. At the time, ThoughtWorks had begun experimenting with a collective leadership model — in March 2012, for example, Chad  Wathington and David Rice formed a two-in-a-box shared managing directorship of Studios. In July of that year, Chad announced that Greg Jesensky and I would share leadership of the Workshops team. Two years later, and with the advantage of some perspective, I can report some modest success in our experience with this model, in which two (or more) people are given equal leadership authority and responsibility but often in complementary roles. (ThoughtWorks currently has a four-person  collective leadership team that serves as the company’s co-presidents at the executive level.)

As one of the company’s first employees, Patti of course was irreplaceable. But after a face-to-face meeting with the members of the Workshops team, in which Chad solicited recommendations and asked any of us to “throw our hat” into the leadership ring (at that time, we were still thinking in terms of a single-leader structure) and meeting individually with our team members, Chad concluded that Greg and I had complementary skills and approaches to co-lead. With his experience as director of global support, Greg would take commercial and operational responsibility for the team; I would oversee the product/offering/pedagogy for training and essentially be the product manager, in addition to my normal work facilitating workshops and coaching.

Though we had our struggles as a team, the leadership experiment worked well. Greg and I were for the most part able to figure out how to use our unique skills sets to help the team. Perhaps most tellingly, we’re still friends to this day!

Some keys to making it work:

  • Courageous executive support: It goes without saying that we couldn’t have done this without Chad making the courageous decision to try it. And not simply start it, but support it and foster it along the way, checking in with us periodically to see how he could assist but also giving us autonomy and trust to do the job.
  • Constant communication: The times when Greg and I worked best together were when we talked a lot. Since we weren’t collocated, we did as much virtual face-to-face as we could, via thrice-weekly whole-team catchups on Google Hangouts. In addition, Greg and I had regular weekly meetings to connect and discuss issues about the business and to brainstorm solutions.
  • Compatible approaches, complementary skills: One key that we probably took for granted (though it may not have escaped Chad’s attention during his decision-making process) was that Greg and I were already familiar with each other, having been “orientation mates” when we first joined ThoughtWorks and having tangentially worked with each other for a year in Studios. In addition, though we have different backgrounds and skills, Greg and I share a similar laid-back temperament, which I think helped us adapt to the strains of the experiment. But that wasn’t enough — we each brought unique backgrounds to the leadership of the team: I had most of the product knowledge and skills, and Greg had more operational management skills. We both agreed that we couldn’t do the other’s job. And yet…
  • Whole-team approach: Even though we might not be able to do the other’s job as well, neither of us could say “that’s not my job.” When Greg took a needed vacation, I did the stuff that he usually does. I didn’t do it as well as Greg, but because a) we communicated so frequently and b) I pitched in at various times to help him, I wasn’t totally lost and never had to say “let’s wait ’til Greg returns.” The same was true for my role, which others on the team shared when I was either on an engagement or a vacation.
  • Lead, not manage: The model worked best when we viewed our role as leaders, rather than managers in the traditional sense. As a fellow trainer-coach of the others on the team, it was easier for me to be a peer-leader, since I experienced first-hand what the others did; a kind of simple gemba-walk approach.

One of our teammates, Luca Minudel, liked the collective leadership model because there was always someone available to ask questions of and make decisions. He also appreciated the possibility of getting answers and suggestions on a broader area of topics, as well as effective and congruent decisions both for the management of the team and for our service offerings.

So what would we recommend to improve our experience with this model?

  • If the leaders are in different locations, schedule a regular day-long face-to-face meeting to address strategic planning. Partly because Greg and I were not collocated, we had difficulty doing more strategic planning. Most of our work was dedicated to tactical and short-term thinking.
  • Use Mingle or another customizable project-management tool to keep track of project work, as well as retrospective actions.
  • Be inclusive of the other on email communications to make sure you are both aware of issues affecting the team.
  • Know the strengths of your co-leader. This helps you assertively define the responsibilities between you, then adapt based on your experience.
  • Exploit the lean approach to leadership: See leadership as mentoring and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Luca even suggests doing it for nearly all roles. In his previous job, the company used the two-in-a-box approach to train someone for a new/next role. Based on my experience, I’d recommend trying it.

 

 

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