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The Magic of Co-Leadership: Unlock a More Powerful Way to Work

Edmond Lau

Edmond Lau

Co-founder of Co Leadership. Author of The Effective Engineer.

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I was halfway up the four-story vertical ropes course, when my course partner at the leadership retreat decided she couldn't continue any further. We agreed she would energetically cheer me on as I continued. I kept climbing and nearly got to the top, but eventually I had to stop as well.

Looking down from the top, I initially felt some pride and surprise that I got as far as I did, despite my fear of heights. But soon afterwards, a sense of loneliness hit me — there wasn't anyone to share the accomplishment with. Being the most effective I could be on my own only took me so far.

For the past five years, I'd been building a brand and a business, The Effective Engineer, on my own. Writing and self-publishing my book were primarily solitary experiences. By the industry's common measures of success (i.e. user growth, revenue), my business is successful. But it's also been hard, at times demoralizing, and ultimately a lonely experience.

For the past few years, “doing it alone” also characterized how I led engineering teams, forging ahead and paving the way for my team to follow.

I organized team meetings. I developed roadmaps and milestones. I wrote design docs. I shouldered responsibility when things went wrong. My leadership revolved around “I.” I worked hard to instill collaboration and teamwork in everything I did, but leadership itself still felt like something I had to tackle alone.

All that has changed in the past few months.

Now, every time I get stuck on something, I can ask for help and feel fully supported by someone's time and energy.

I can finish tasks in a fraction of the time and energy, and previously hard things feel easy.

I am constantly unlocking new levels of productivity I didn't think possible — which is especially surprising because I've read over a hundred books on productivity, personal growth, and self-improvement, and I've even written one myself!

Here's a typical example of what's been possible — during a span of two weeks, my co-founder Jean and I announced two workshops, launched a website, shipped two company workshop proposals, ran our first online workshop, incorporated our company, sent out four newsletters, revamped our workshop page, and sold ten workshop tickets. All while only working three days per week and including time each week to celebrate over a glass of wine and charcuterie board.

That's the magical power of co-leadership.

Faster Together, Further Together — and Far More Fun

What is co-leadership? At its core, co-leadership is shared leadership between two or more people. Each individual takes shared ownership over a shared outcome — much like improv actors on a stage all working together to co-create a single scene.

As engineers, there are a lot of limiting beliefs to unlearn to adopt a co-leadership model. We've long been trained in a mindset of “divide and conquer.” We might work together to enumerate important new features and then divvy them out across the team. Intuitively, that mindset feels more efficient and matches familiar paradigms like recursion and modularity.

The industry even has job descriptions seeking “rockstar programmers” or “code ninjas” — individuals who are so effective that they don't need anyone else. The language assumes that collaboration is slow and introduces additional overhead. At best, we might adopt a motto of “faster alone, further together,” implying that there is some tradeoff in working with others.

A few years ago, I designed a five-week workshop series for the Pinterest engineering team on how to be an effective engineer. The opportunity to lead my first professional workshop excited me, but it also felt hard and like a lot of work. I sometimes dreaded preparing for the workshops, designing the slides and exercises, and standing in front of a room trying to keep the twenty participants engaged.

Similarly, on product and engineering teams, when we over-index on solo leadership and taking sole ownership of projects, it's easy for one person to get stuck for a period of time and feel demoralized. I can remember countless times when I've been frustrated by an indecipherable bug or a high-pressure project. And we underestimate the toll that isolation and loneliness can take on our energy and motivation levels.

With a co-leadership model, we embrace that work can be faster, higher-quality, more fulfilling, and more fun together. Now, when I co-design leadership workshops with Jean, it feels like play. Like in an improv scene, we bounce small ideas between each other, reflecting back a bigger version of the idea centered around what's most important. Soon afterwards, what was once a small idea quickly transforms into a powerful leadership experience. Once, we even co-designed a powerful, three-hour workshop experience in an hour.

We've extended this learning to most of our work together, constantly challenging how we might normally split up tasks and share in our leadership — to increase productivity, impact, and fun.

When Jean and I co-lead, we tackle what is most important together. When I'm struggling — like when I felt overwhelmed by emails a few weeks ago — Jean can help coach me through it. When Jean's feeling low-energy, I can help shift her perspective or the activity to bring her energy back up.

Because recovering from setbacks happen so much more quickly, at the end of the day, we don't experience the familiar end-of-day drained feeling. The peak moments are higher and the troughs of sorrow more quickly neutralized because we're not alone in them. And we always surprise ourselves by how much we accomplish in just a few hours.

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What Does Co-Leadership Look Like?

Here's a simple mental model of what co-leadership enables. The Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, says that 20% of the effort generates 80% of the gains. The last mile — that remaining 80% — can be tedious and exhausting.

Sometimes, we can just skip the last mile and focus on the high-leverage activities. But other times, completeness requires that we finish it.

That's where co-leadership kicks in. With co-leadership, the first 20% of effort that either Jean or I put into a project can individually lead to 80% gains that don't fully overlap — and that often lets us get to 100% of the way with minimal effort.

The writing on this blog provides a great example of co-leadership at work. For most of my life, I've thought of writing as a solo activity — the same's been true for Jean. I spent nearly two years writing my book, The Effective Engineer.

Writing this post on my own would have required a lot of mental prep, maybe weeks of mustering up the energy for editing and polishing, and finally, after much effort and time — a publishable blog post. And, in fact, that's what most writers do — our past selves included.

Even though this blog post and others might be signed with a single author, we are actually co-leading in our writing — co-writing — behind the scenes.

Shared writing has provided a dynamic arena for practicing leadership. Two individual voices contribute a range of ideas, with a goal of ultimately presenting a coherent and powerful message in a single voice. It's not too different from a leadership team discussing a set of ideas and then converging toward a single message to present to everyone — in this case, to you, our readers.

Co-writing this post with Jean looked like this: I spent a time-boxed 40 minutes quickly drafting something up before sharing it with Jean (who was also drafting one of her blog posts during the same 40 min). Then we simultaneously wrote and edited different sections in Quip, a collaborative document editor, in real-time. When one of us hit a writing slump, we watched the other make changes live, and marveled at the magical experience of watching something we drafted get polished in front of our eyes. We sometimes paused to comment to build clarity around decisions and then continued editing.

When we co-write, there is no ego about who wrote what. In the past month, we've co-written newsletters and blog posts that are only in one person's name. What matters isn't our individual success but our joint success, and that same thread weaves through all our work together. Even with writing — generally considered a very individual activity — co-leadership has proven to be faster, easier, more fulfilling, and more impactful than solo leadership.

What Makes Co-Leadership Work

Co-leadership works when there is a high degree of vulnerability and trust, an eagerness to co-create with the other person with an open mind, and a shared stake that we're both fighting for.

Early on, we shared openly about our strengths and what we struggled with. For me, I've often struggled with logistics, operations, and emails. We've heard people talk about teamwork with the perspective of a team being limited by its weakest link, but we've experienced the inverse — that our individual strengths enhance our team as a whole, and if we both have areas that are weak, we have each other's support to work through it.

We continuously design and redesign our alliance together, making explicit in conversation what's important in how we work together. Often, we'll even have these conversations openly in our workshops to demo for participants what they're like.

We clear up stories or assumptions we make up about each other that hold us back from a stronger working relationship. The first time we did this, I shared an assumption with Jean that she was too busy as a full-time coach and mom for me to bother her, even though I wanted to work more together. Jean shared an assumption that I was already successful with my book and my business and didn't need a partner. We realized that we were both leaning out of working together because of stories we made up. And clearing those stories let us eagerly lean into the partnership.

I used to spend a lot of time second guessing what someone meant by a comment or why they did a particular thing. Now, rather than guessing, we just talk about them.

Co-leadership also relies on a core principle from improv called “yes, and”: giving positive support, and then building on top of your co-leader's ideas. You know that your partner will support you and accept your contributions — even if you make mistakes and come up with something ludicrous.

The power of “yes, and” is that it creates a foundation where things feel easy and big dreams become possible.

All of this we do in service of a shared stake — to transform the world's engineers into leaders, while embodying fun co-leadership ourselves.

These are our key ingredients to co-leadership.

What Does Co-Leadership Mean for You?

Jean is an amazing co-leader, and in building something as big as a company, it's critical to find the right partner. But I've also co-led workshops, meetings, projects, travel adventures, and even an open mic night with other co-leaders as well. And I've found that we can all be co-leaders in many different settings.

That might be a partnership between an engineering and product lead. It might be a partnership with your fellow peers, whether they're other tech leads or managers. Or it might be a partnership in some non-work-related project.

With co-leadership, I've gotten a taste of a very different way to work, and it'll be hard to ever go back to my old leadership pattern of “doing it alone.” We hear from a lot of people that though they work on large teams in open offices, constantly receiving message notifications, they feel alone and crave connection.

Our work together has further crystallized what we already believed to be true — that deep trust and connection is critical to building exceptional teams. As Jean and I continue on this co-leadership journey, we're taking notes. And we'll be distilling and sharing the best practices with you, so that you too can apply the principles of co-leadership to engineering and development teams — and go faster and further, feeling more fulfilled and having more fun.

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The Magic of Co-Leadership: Unlock a More Powerful Way to Work
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