The power of two: tandem leadership

“tandem shared co-leadership” in white, turquoise, yellow and light blue letters on a black-grey background, evoking the idea of an IDE.

Leadership has been debated and (re-)defined for centuries, with theories and models evolving. From the autocratic leadership style of the past to the democratic and servant leadership styles of today, there has been a shift towards more collaborative and empowering approaches.

One of the most recent models to emerge is tandem leadership, also known as shared leadership or co-leadership.

What is Tandem Leadership?

Most descriptions define tandem leadership as a relatively new leadership model. It appears to have gained popularity very recently. However, shared leadership models have always been lived — maybe just less so in companies.

In the tandem leadership model, two managers share the responsibility and tasks of leading a team or teams. Tandem leadership is often used in high-stakes situations, such as in startups or rapidly growing companies, where quick decision-making and effective teamwork are essential for success.

In a tandem leadership model, both managers are responsible for the overall success of the team. They work together to make decisions and they implement the company’s strategies together.

The setup is based on the premise that two heads are better than one. Combining the strengths of two leaders, the team will be more effective and efficient.

Tandem leadership can be particularly effective in organizations which value collaboration and teamwork. It is meant to encourage open communication and foster a positive team dynamic.

Power struggles can play a role. In situations where both co-leaders have equal rights and powers this can either lead to a struggle about this or a truly lived share of power.

Tandem leadership models

Tandem leadership can be be practised in several ways. While most forms assume the assignment of two leaders to one team and sharing tasks, there are deviations.

These are some of the tandem leadership options:

  • 2 leaders, 1 team: 1 disciplinary, 1 functional
  • 2 leaders, 1 team: responsibilities by choice/assignment
  • Variant: 2 leaders, several teams, various responsibilities
  • Manager — team leader model: 1 disciplinary manager with team leads
  • 1 assigned team leader, functional leads per situation (dual leadership)

For more insight into number 6, the dual leader leadership model, please see this article.

Examples of Tandem Leadership in organizations

There are several organizations with successful implementations of tandem leadership, including:

  • SAP: in its co-leadership model, leadership positions can be posted under the tandem leadership umbrella. Pairings are either be made by the manager of managers, or interested applicants can team up to form a tandem. Full disclosure: SAP is my employer.
  • Tandemploy: the company developed a software solution to match potential joint leaders with one another and has reported having several high-profile companies as customers.

When is Tandem Leadership the best approach?

Tandem Leadership can be a great approach in situations where:

There are multiple teams or departments

Tandem leadership can be especially effective when there are multiple teams or departments. The two leaders can work together to ensure that all teams are working towards a common goal and that each team has the support and guidance it needs to succeed.

There are complex challenges

When innovative solutions are needed, having two leaders working together can help to ensure that all perspectives are considered and that the best solution is found.

Coverage

In settings where one leader nees to present at a significant share of the time, having more than one manager in place helps to reduce stress and burnout.

Tandem leadership is best suited for organizations valuing collaboration and teamwork, which have a decentralized decision-making structure. This model can be particularly effective in environments where there are complex, interdependent tasks that require coordination and cooperation between multiple individuals.

Tandem leadership can also be a good fit for organizations that are facing significant change or transition, providing two perspectives and approaches to problem solving. Consequently, all angles are considered and decisions are made based on a well-rounded understanding.

Generally, tandem leadership is best suited for situations where there is a need for both stability and flexibility in leadership. This model can provide stability through the sharing of responsibilities and decision-making, while also allowing for flexibility by leveraging the unique skills and strengths of each leader.

That being said, tandem leadership is not appropriate for all organizations or situations. In some cases, a more hierarchical or concentrated leadership structure might be more effective, particularly in organizations with clear lines of authority and well-defined roles and responsibilities.

In situations where there is a clear, unifying vision or goal, a single leader may be better equipped to drive the organization towards that objective.

Tandem leadership is becoming increasingly popular as organizations seek new and innovative ways to lead and manage their teams. This model is well-suited to the rapidly changing and complex business environment, as it provides a flexible and adaptive approach to leadership.

Tandem leadership benefits

Tandem leadership can offer a number of benefits for leaders, including:

Shared responsibility

It allows leaders to share the responsibilities and decision making power for their team or teams. This can reduce the stress and pressure associated with being the sole leader.

Professional growth and development

Tandem leadership provides leaders, specifically new ones, with opportunities to develop their skills, take on new responsibilities and grow professionally. This can be valuable for individuals looking to expand their leadership skills and build their resume.

Increased creativity and innovation

A shared leadership mission can encourage creative thinking and new ideas by providing multiple perspectives and approaches to problem solving, leading to more innovative solutions and improved organizational performance.

Increased employee engagement

Tandem leadership can foster a more equitable distribution of power and authority, with the effect of increased employee engagement and improved organizational performance.

Better work-life balance

Having two leaders in place can provide them with more flexibility in their schedules and workloads, improving their work-life balance and reducing burnout.

Tandem leadership is beneficial for URGs

Tandem leadership can be particularly beneficial for leaders from underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent people, caretakers and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Some of the ways in which tandem leadership enables these leaders include:

  • Increased representation
  • Improved access to opportunities
  • Increased voice and influence
  • Improved support network

Downsides of tandem leadership

Even though the model has a range of benefits, it harbors the age-old question of who’s in charge.

In shared leadership this question will not only come up more often. There is also the temptation to reject accountability, specifically when the model itself and the areas of responsibility are not properly defined.

Team members and stakeholders alike might be confused and will need to look up the RASCI matrix — if there is one.

Introducing tandem leadership

Introducing tandem leadership in a company requires careful planning, clear communication and a commitment to diversity and belonging.

What should you take into consideration?

  1. Assess the organizational culture: before introducing tandem leadership, companies need to assess their existing culture and values to determine if they are aligned with the principles of what tandem leadership represents. It doesn’t make sense to kick off a new model when it will not be set up for success.
  2. Develop a clear definition and purpose: you need to develop a clear definition of tandem leadership and its purpose and communicate it repeatedly to all employees.
  3. Identify potential teams: you should identify teams that are well-suited for tandem leadership, taking into consideration factors such as the size of the team, the complexity of the tasks, and the existing team dynamics. You can then do first trials and see if it works.
  4. Train leaders and teams: think about offering training and development opportunities for the leaders and teams who will be participating in tandem leadership.
  5. Encourage collaboration: foster collaboration between the leaders and teams participating in tandem leadership, i. e. through regular team-building activities, cross-functional projects and other opportunities for reflection.
  6. Monitor progress and outcomes: investing into monitoring the progress and outcomes of tandem leadership and make adjustments as needed.
  7. Celebrate successes: celebrate the successes of tandem leadership, for instance via recognition and rewards programs and team celebrations.

Finding a good tandem match

Organizational perspective

Identify the right skills and attributes: you need to identify the skills and attributes that are required for success in tandem leadership, which may include excellent communication skills, collaboration abilities, strategic thinking, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Look for internal candidates: you should look for internal candidates who have demonstrated the skills and attributes required for tandem leadership. This can be achieved through talent management programs, employee development initiatives, and other internal programs.

Offer opportunities for collaboration: you should offer opportunities for potential tandem leaders to collaborate and work together, which can be achieved through team-building activities, cross-functional projects, or other opportunities for interaction.

Provide training and development: you need to provide training and development opportunities for the tandem leaders, which can help to improve their skills, knowledge, and abilities, and increase their likelihood of success.

Evaluate outcomes: it is highly beneficial to evaluate the outcomes of tandem leadership, taking into consideration factors such as team performance, employee engagement, and the effectiveness of the leadership model.

Individual perspective

Finding a good co-leader who harmonizes with you is an important step in implementing a successful tandem leadership model. Here are some steps yoir employees can follow to find a good co-leader:

  1. Looking for complementary skills: a good co-leader will have complementary skills that complement the own strengths and weaknesses. This can include a different leadership style, expertise in different areas, or different approaches to problem-solving.
  2. Considering compatibility: compatibility is key in tandem leadership, so it is important to choose a co-leader with whom team members have a strong personal connection and a shared vision for the model.
  3. Assessing communication styles: communication is critical in tandem leadership, so it is important to assess the communication styles of potential co-leaders to ensure that they are compatible with your own style.

Are you thinking about introducing tandem leadership? Have you tried it out?

What questions do you have in your mind on the model? Comment here ⬇

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Franziska Hauck - tech (people) {code}

Franziska Hauck is a people strategist with a focus on tech/product/data/ux. tech (people) {code} is her hub for all things human in tech & Germany IT insights.