Roleshare: Senior Leadership
"So many women are overlooked or disregarded when it comes to leadership roles because of the unique roles we play in our family and personal lives: we are most likely to be carers, and the work of family life often falls to us." In June, Ada's List, a community moving women in tech forward, announced Khaleelah Jones and Mara Larson-Richard as their Co-CEOs to "demonstrate that women can grow and thrive in their careers even if the structure of the role isn’t the traditional 40+ hour, 9-5 workweek we’re used to seeing for company leadership. Ada's List are excited to explore this type of workflow and use it to demonstrate flexible working models really work - and can be used to benefit women progressing in their careers." Roleshare interviewed Jones and Larson-Richard to learn about their journey so far.
Leadership can be a lonely experience and this has really changed that experience for me. ... It's so nice to know that if I am lacking in time, expertise or just emotional or mental capacity, there’s someone right by my side to support me, compliment my skill set or strategise with.
Why did you want to share a role?
Larson-Richard: I am starting INSEAD’s GEMBA programme in October and was looking for a better way to balance my career with the demands of the programme. In the past, I’ve overloaded myself with commitments and that not only made me worse at delivering on all those commitments, it made me unhealthy and unhappy. I’m very excited to have the ability to do a job I’m passionate about and challenge myself at INSEAD and hopefully stay healthy and happy!
Jones: I am the founder and CEO of Careful Feet Digital, a boutique digital marketing agency with a distributed, asynchronous team of 15. I’m currently in the scary but exciting place of stepping out of the day to day so was ready to take on another, new challenge as a hired CEO.
What benefits does sharing bring to your organization and stakeholders?
Larson-Richard: So many - The job of CEO in a small business has so much complexity and responsibility attached to it. The opportunity to share that with another leader has made the outcomes better thus far and I think that will only continue. This arrangement also gives us the chance to
genuinely step away, for our other work, as well as when we take time off and that benefit creates far better mental clarity and focus making us better at the job day to day.
Jones: A small business requires a CEO that is pretty much a jack of all trades, and it is a job that has ongoing pressing demands. Mara and I complement each other in skill set so we can act as a unit that can address pretty much anything, and given that we are two people rather than one,
we also have added capacity to address whatever comes up at any time.
What benefits does sharing bring you in comparison to other jobs you’ve held solo?
Larson-Richard: I’ve always been someone who thrived in collaborative environments and have been thankful for some of the exceptional peers I’ve had in the past who made creating new products and new businesses possible. However, there is something measurably different about sharing the role and having the opportunity to collaborate within one role and one vision which is really beneficial. It’s not bringing a team together with different objectives, it’s bringing a set of skills to bear on a collective vision. Leadership can be a lonely experience and this has really changed
that experience for me.
Jones: As the CEO of a business that grew from literally just me to a mid-sized entity, I can say that being the lone CEO is a very demanding job. It has been so nice to know that if I am lacking in time, expertise or just emotional or mental capacity, there’s someone right by my side to support me, compliment my skill set or strategise with.
Businesses often compromise without needing to because they think only in linear and traditional structures.
Khaleelah Jones and Mara Larson-Richard, Co-Ceo, Ada's List
How did you come to share this role together?
The board of Ada’s List appointed co-CEOs in recognition of the changing nature of work and the need for different ways of working, especially for women in business. Ada’s List was lucky to get many exceptional candidates applying for a role that had been advertised as highly flexible. We were the final candidates and had such complementary skills that the board recognised Ada’s List would benefit from both of us leading rather than choosing one over the other. Businesses often compromise without needing to because they think only in linear and
You’re still early in the life of your partnership – what are some of the hurdles you’re having to work through as you aim for a groove together?
We are still getting to know one another and discovering how our skills complement one another. Given that we are building a business at warp speed, this can sometimes feel like building a plane as you fly it with a co-pilot: super exciting and great to have someone along for
the ride, but of course, there has to be just that much more communication and clarity of approach than if it was a solo job!
Knowing what you know now about onboarding as co-leaders what would you do differently and what would you repeat if you were to do it again?
Larson-Richard: TIME! Time is always a luxury in executive transitions, but if we could have magically created more time, that would have been ideal. We have had to step into decision making and operations while finding time to get to know one another and align on our visions. We’re very
lucky that we work so well together and our visions and skills complement each other. I am very thankful that even with all the other priorities, we carved out time to do some exercises that helped us get to know one another. I definitely wouldn’t skip that step.
Jones: Echoing Mara, I think more time to both get to know one another and align on our plans and visions for the business before starting the day to day would have been helpful - but we’ve been able to overcome that through a strong working relationship grounded in honesty and forthright communication. I think one thing we did that I’m so glad we carved out the time to do is answer a questionnaire about our working, leadership and communication styles. It helped us to get to know each other better and we immediately were able to identify areas where we’d compliment each other well.
What are some of the things you’ve tested and plans you’ve put in place to work through those hurdles?
We work together as much as we possibly can: initially, we thought about working asynchronously but working together has been beneficial to help us get to know each other and steer the organisation as well
Having a fully complement of skills between us has made that easier because we’re able to pull from a pretty large tool-box and decide who can best achieve a specific project or priority.
Khaleelah Jones and Mara Larson-Richard, Co-Ceo, Ada's List
How have you divided your responsibilities?
We complement each other very well: Mara has experience in scaling and strategy for larger businesses, and Khaleelah has grown a company from scratch to a million-dollar valuation. Originally, we thought we would divide up the responsibilities and run different areas, but the reality of it has been that we share a vision and strategic responsibility and then we divide up the specific projects and priorities which help us achieve the next milestone in that vision. Having a full complement of skills between us has made that easier because we’re able to pull from a pretty large toolbox and decide who can best achieve a specific project or priority.
What has surprised you so far in working this way?
Larson-Richard: I was pretty sceptical about the co-CEO concept as I thought it would be needlessly messy, however, I dramatically underestimated how helpful it has been to have a second set of eyes and hands for executing our goals and trading off on projects as we each attend to our
other projects. I don’t know what I would do without Khaleelah at this point and it hasn’t even been 100 days!
Jones: I used to be very sceptical of the co-CEO concept, but it really has worked so well - and I’ve already learned so much from Mara!
What have you learned or picked up that only working this way could’ve done?
Larson-Richard: I’ve always been a fan of kindness and honesty being an important part of creating a healthy work environment, but sharing this role has demonstrated just how important those characteristics are. We are very honest with each other, but it comes from a place of kindness and helpfulness that has helped me grow professionally.
Jones: The impact and importance of clear, honest and frank communication.
"We are living proof that there are other effective options beyond traditional ways of working. As experiments with ways of working continue, but workloads increase, job shares are a way for organisations to actually increase productivity and retention while ensuring employees are able to benefit from the extracurricular experiences that only a work/life balance can provide. We really believe that job sharing can increase company productivity and retention: we’ve had great results in addressing all the challenges and changes that come with running a small business without burning out or feeling debilitatingly overwhelmed, and that is largely due to the fact that we have the mental and emotional fortitude - and knowledge - of two people rather than one" says Larson-Richard and Jones.
"Mara and Khaleelah's experience in co-leadership so eloquently displays the power of their joint skill sets. Both are impressive leaders on their own, and what they are able to achieve fractionally, together, takes it to a whole other synergistic level" says Sophie Smallwood, co-founder of Roleshare - a platform matching professionals to co-apply for jobs. "Their wish list point about more time to get to know each other...that's a discovery element we craft as part of our workflow with Roleshare and couldn't agree more," says Smallwood.