Leave your ego at the door: Lessons in dual leadership

Leave your ego at the door: Lessons in dual leadership

Two years on from taking the top posts at Wavemaker, Kelly Parker and Katie Lee explain how dual leadership helps them do their best work.

It’s been two years since we took the helm at Wavemaker UK and it’s been quite the ride. We’ve enjoyed (almost) every second and we’ve learned a hell of a lot.

At that time, we weren’t just getting to grips with our roles, but also this new agency life. Legacy organisational structures and leadership models were no longer working for the current or future needs of talent or clients. And what was clear to us was that hierarchical command and control of one person at the top could not be the future of agency leadership. It’s simply not how people want to be led and it’s certainly not our natural style.

So we chose to lean in and adopt a dual leadership approach, but not in the traditional way of joint CEO or similar matching titles, because we knew success would be about dual leadership, not joint responsibility. There needs to be someone with the final say and with whom the buck stops. Otherwise, you could easily find yourselves in the thick of decision paralysis.

Of all the things we’ve learned in the last two years, making dual leadership work has been fundamental.

Find your working cadence

Understanding how you both work doesn’t automatically happen. Quarterly coaching has helped us get there and it’s been quite the revelation — the time spent profiling and learning how we react to different situations has ensured that we’re empathetic to one another’s approaches.

In fact, understanding our foibles has been vital in building a strong bond. It’s also helped the agency understand how best to work with us.

One of us is an extroverted thinker who likes to talk everything through and needs a Coke Zero to function. The other is an introverted thinker who thrives off pre-reads and does their best work with a fruit tea in hand. One of us nods when receiving information despite not necessarily agreeing with what’s being said, before going away to mull it over, and the other will say what they’re thinking when they’re thinking it. Anyone who knows us will know who’s who!

Draw on your differences

On paper, we’re quite different people. We have different skillsets, different backgrounds and different experiences. We have different leadership styles too. But that’s why it works. And, actually, that’s probably how we’ve been able to provoke growth for the agency.

Because of this, we’re able to play to our strengths while unearthing the hidden talents of the other — unlocking both creative prowess and operational brilliance.

This extends to our emotions too. One of the most joyful things about leading together is working as one energy source. We know one another well enough to instantly recognise who’s the drain and who’s the radiator each day — and we use that to our advantage.

Drawing on our differences both professionally and emotionally means that, between us, we’re always able to show up and support, no matter the situation. We feel lucky that our differences complement each other.

Embrace boundaries

As with everything, there has to be an element of balance.

Sometimes we unintentionally egg each other on to work beyond what’s healthy. But, to address this, we’ve put some simple boundaries in place.

For instance, we both get the train from Waterloo, so we walk in and out together to brief and debrief the day, allowing us a clear start and stop. And because we speak to each other more than our husbands during the week, we try not to talk at weekends, even about fun stuff.

Sometimes we’re bursting at the seams on a Monday morning to have a gossip about everything over the weekend and what’s been whirling around in our heads, but it’s this space that enables us to keep the momentum going.

Leave your ego at the door

Egoless leadership is hard. However much anyone talks about being egoless in their approach to leadership, it’s nigh on impossible all the time. You don’t get to a senior position without having some ego.

It’s about being honest when you’re feeling a bit bruised. Sometimes one of us gets invited to judge or go to an event and the other doesn’t. And while we’ll always celebrate each other’s achievements, that can feel worse than missing out on an award.

With dual leadership, you have to have trust, respect and shared values. There will be days when tolerance is low and you might bicker like an old married couple. But that’s fine — at least it’s about driving the business forward, not taking the bins out. What matters is having each other’s backs.

Buckle up and enjoy the ride

Joint leadership has made our working relationship easier and the job that bit more enjoyable. We show up to work every day not just for the agency and our clients, but for each other.

We’re beyond proud of what we’ve achieved. We’ve worked our socks off, we’ve celebrated the highs and navigated the lows, but we’ve had an absolute ball along the way. We cannot wait to see what we do together next.

There are lots of different types of leadership out there, but there’s magic and fearlessness as a duo. Like any relationship, it needs to be nurtured to be effective. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s worth it.

Kelly Parker (left) is CEO and Katie Lee is chief operating officer at Wavemaker UK

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