The Pros and the Cons of Shared Accountability

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June 28th 2020

by Carolee Colter, Columinate consultant

First, a definition: By co-management, I mean shared accountability for the performance of the organization between two or more managers, who supervise other employees and report to an owner or board of directors.

Also, “co-management” is not necessarily the same as a “management team.” Most general managers meet regularly with a core group of managers to get input on decisions and disseminate information throughout the company; this core group is often called “the management team.”

Why co-management?

Sometimes a company may not be able to afford to offer a competitive salary to an experienced general manager, and no one currently on the staff has enough of the needed skills or confidence to take on the general manager position. Under these conditions, appointing co-managers to divide up the general manager’s duties may seem like the best alternative. The co-managers can combine their strengths and support each other in taking leadership roles. But there are pitfalls.

Pitfall #1: accountability
When a general manager fails to follow through on agreements with a board (or owners), the choices may not be easy, but they are relatively clear. But when two managers meet all their objectives, and a third manager does not, the board/owner is all too easily pulled into company operations and personal dynamics among the managers.

Theoretically, a group of managers can hold any one of its members accountable, but I have yet to see this demonstrated in real life. Co-managers don’t seem to feel empowered to redirect each other’s priorities or ask each other to justify use of time. The financial manager may get the statements done on time and the operations manager may successfully install the new POS, but together they can’t seem to get the merchandising manager to do anything about the slipping gross margin. In reality, when there is more than one manager, the board often finds itself acting as the general manager, supervising the co-managers.

Pitfall #2: planning
A serious weakness of co-managed organizations is that planning seems to fall through the cracks. Co-managers rarely have the time to maintain an overview, think ahead and be proactive because they are already covering other management functions (finance, operations, marketing, etc.) Growth issues go unaddressed, and sometimes market share is lost to competitors because no one in the organization is taking the lead. Perhaps this problem could be solved if there were just two co-managers and one of them had specific responsibility for planning, with time set aside from routine business operations. A point to ponder: if one co-manager is leading the process and doing the legwork for planning, are they not actually the general manager in fact if not in name?

Pitfall #3: personal dynamics
The success of co-management is utterly dependent upon the personal chemistry between the co-managers. While the personality of a general manager will be a dominant influence within an organization, individual personality is even more accentuated with co-managers. When the fit is just right — when the co-managers complement each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses – co-managers can be as successful at running the company as a general manager. They speak with a unified voice to the board/owners and to the staff, and achieve the agreed-upon goals. When the fit is not right, management becomes dysfunctional, and the process for addressing problems is murky and complicated.

The larger the management group, the more subtle and complex the personal dynamics become. Threesomes seem to degenerate into twosomes with an odd person out, in my observation. Management teams of four or five are more unpredictable and even less stable. With multiple managers, employees get different answers and may sometimes play them off against each other. And the more managers there are, the more the board/owners get drawn into operations, particularly when there are operational problems that the management group is unable to solve.

Given the importance of personality, I think a co-management system only makes sense when the potential co-manager candidates are already known. It is far too much of a gamble to hire a co-manager from outside. If a co-management system is adopted it should be with the understanding that if one co-manager leaves, the board/owners and remaining managers will take that opportunity to evaluate the structure and decide whether to continue it or hire a general manager.

In Conclusion
A co-management arrangement can buy time for an organization with no qualified outside candidates and one or more potential inside candidates who need more time to develop skills and confidence. It can work if the co-managers have complementary strengths and a great deal of trust and honesty between them. The duties of the co-managers should be clearly delineated, and the board/owners should be vigilant about holding each manager individually accountable, not expecting the other co-manager(s) to do so. The fewer the co-managers, the easier the board’s/owner’s interface with management becomes, and the less success depends upon individual personalities. Finally, no particular management structure should be seen as permanent. The organization needs to be flexible, to continue to adjust its management structure to its environment.

Carolee Colter has been consulting for co-ops and independents in the natural foods industry for over 30 years. She’s been leading workshops at Provender for most of those years.

As the leader of the HR Team of Columinate, she has surveyed thousands of employees in our industry and uses that data in her work to help make her clients the workplaces of choice in their communities. For help with increasing productivity with staff involvement, contact info@columinate.coop.