Kym Dildine and Natalie Caples pose for a photo. The two made the transition to CEO of the Central California Food bank earlier this year. Photo contributed.
Written by Donald A. Promnitz
Lauri King and Stacy Rianda have a lot in common. In fact, one might call them kindred spirits.
The two have worked together as deputy managers for The Big Fresno Fair for the last ten years, and they share more than a title. In fact, the two joked that they’re like twins “separated at birth by 13 years.” So when longtime CEO John Alkire transitioned to leading the Fair’s foundation in September, it made sense for the pair to take over running the operation together.
“Lauri and I often say that we share a brain because we do say the same things a lot of the time,” Rianda said. “We occasionally dress alike without even knowing — it is very odd.”
Rianda and King aren’t the only ones taking on this style of management and navigating it successfully. Co-CEO management has found a place in the Central Valley. It takes a special bond between the two heads of a company to make it work, but for those who can, it can be an effective model to increase a company’s leadership abilities.
Earlier this year, the Central California Food Bank decided to take a leap and embrace a co-CEO structure as well. Having worked together for nine years, Kym Dildine and Natalie Caples pitched the idea to their Board of Directors.
According to them, it’s led to a style of leadership that covers all the bases. Having two people with different skill sets allows them to always put the best foot forward, they said.
“I think that for the longest time, the expectation… is that the CEO was a jack-of-all-trades and knew how to do everything,” Caples said. “And I think that we’re finding there is no one person out there that has all these unique skill sets to be able to succeed in every single asset and function of the CEO role.”
Rianda and King are seeing the benefits of the model.
“Anything that needs to be written goes through me because I am just very, very strong in that area,” Rianda said. “Numbers, however, are not my forte. I struggle with that — and that is where Lauri excels.”
In Downtown Fresno, Irma Olguin, Jr. and Jake Soberal have been running Bitwise Industries on equal footing. Having provided consultation to Dildine on the co-CEO model, Soberal agreed to the benefit of two unique persons with contrasting sets of skills — saying it brings out the “sum of the best” of both parties.
“If you had two Jakes, they would not be good co-CEOs, and I think Irma would say the same about herself,” Soberal said. “The fact that we are different, bringing different best qualities to the table and working hard to amplify those in each other for the benefit of Bitwise is what makes the outcome of our relationship and the dual impact of our leadership — I think — special.”
Another major component to the fruitfulness of dual leadership — at least according to Caples and Dildine — is the access to different mindsets, perspectives and ideas when it comes down to decision-making. Relying on each other’s strengths, they defer to each other for counsel.
“I really value Kym’s opinion and even though we have specific areas of expertise, there is internal perspective, which is always good to have,” Caples said. “Because sometimes we get kind of siloed and tunnel-visioned in our own thoughts or ideas and it’s hard to take a different perspective.”
The right combination
But even those who’ve found success in the co-CEO model will say that it’s not recommended for everyone. In order for it to work, there have to be key components in place — namely a strong and preexisting relationship between both CEOs.
In Soberal’s case, he’d known Irma for three years prior to Bitwise. With a relationship of mutual admiration and respect, it felt like the obvious choice. But Soberal admits that his and Olguin’s case was the exception, not the norm. And it’s something that’s often frowned upon.
“There certainly were people that tried to talk us out of it,” Soberal said. “It isn’t a dynamic I would recommend to many people. In many respects it’s based on something you can’t work hard to create — you either have it or you don’t.”
Constant collaboration is another necessary aspect to the model for it to work. Caples and Dildine added that there can be no secrets between the two, and are always sure to inform the other of their activities and ideas in order to preserve trust.
“Outside of our marriages, this is probably the most transparent relationship we have,” Dildine said. “We’re each other’s fans and want to see each other succeed.”
This becomes useful when the inevitable situation of disagreement occurs. Eventually, both parties will have different ideas on how to move forward with an objective. For King and Rianda, it’s meeting in the middle and remembering that in the end, both want what’s best for The Fair and its employees.
“I think like any good marriage, there’s always compromise,” King said.
Trying it on for size
Despite the aversions many have and the special circumstances necessary, there are still those who encourage organizations and companies to consider the possibility if the right factors are in place.
Katherine Verducci acts as a co-CEO of Clovis-based 1903 PR with Santiago Villegas. Bitwise is her company’s client for public relations. She believes that in the future, the co-CEO model will become more popular.
“I think it is rare, but I think it’s probably going to become more common just because I think it’s like that old archetype — like a lone leader that does everything by themselves… people are coming to realize that’s not healthy for that leader,” she said.
It takes friendship and chemistry, but for those who make it work, they are finding for themselves that two heads are better than one.
“I would not pair two strangers together and try to make this work,” Dildine said. “But if you have strong internal candidates and it works out for both of their personalities — because there is a level of compromise and trust — I think it’s a viable option that more organizations should explore.”