Jes Kirkwood
Growth Marketing Services


High-quality, data-driven insights from B2B SaaS Marketer & Content Creator Jes Kirkwood.

Your Startup Needs More Managers, Not Fewer

Holacracy. Self-management. Distributed leadership. You’re probably already aware of the management models that eliminate hierarchy. By empowering all employees to make decisions, executives hope to attract more talent, increase productivity, and accelerate growth.

Over the last decade, many companies have embraced flat organizational structures, including Zappos, Medium, and Buffer. Sadly, these experiments don’t always work.

After adopting a self-management model in 2014, the team at Buffer struggled to adapt. Employees felt overwhelmed by their new freedom. They felt lost without expectations, guidance, and accountability. By the following year, COO Leo Widrich reported, “Hierarchy has once again become a central part of how we work again at Buffer.”

Through this experience, Buffer learned one very important lesson: If you don’t impose hierarchy from above, it emerges naturally. The truth is, some employees have more experience and expertise than others. That’s why their peers intuitively look to them for advice and leadership.

But leadership doesn’t have to be centralized. If you’re considering a shift toward distributed leadership but aren’t sure if going 100% flat is right for your startup, consider embracing joint leadership. Yes, it means you’ll have more managers, not fewer — but that could be just what your growing company needs.

Here’s why:



Joint leadership simply means dividing what’s typically one person’s managerial duties between multiple people, who put their heads together to make leadership decisions. By adopting this model, you can benefit from two unique skill sets and personality types.

Consider this example: You hire two people to jointly lead customer success at your SaaS startup. Over the course of their careers, each leader has developed a core set of strengths. The first person you hire has 10 years of experience: 7 years in technical customer support followed by 3 years in customer success. He’s a seasoned team leader with considerable technical expertise. Plus, his ESFJ personality is likely to help encourage a cooperative team spirit.

The second person you hire has 8 years of experience: 3 years as an account manager, 2 years as an account strategist, and 3 years as a marketing consultant. She has a history of working directly with executive-level personnel and a proven ability to drive growth at scale. Plus, her INTJ personality is likely to help foster a culture of achievement.

Despite their strengths, each lacks important skills that could derail their efforts. By hiring (or promoting) two leaders with complementary skills, you significantly reduce their risk of failure while leveraging their unique strengths.



Embracing joint leadership doesn’t mean paying two C-level salaries. In fact, it’s not always suitable for seasoned professionals. But joint leadership is ideal for one emerging generation of leaders: Millennials.

According to Dr. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, Millennials are more likely than their predecessors to experience high levels of stress and anxiety. They are also less likely to take responsibility for their successes and failures. That’s why offering opportunities for joint leadership will attract millennials, who feel most confident when working in team settings. Because joint leadership allows Millennials to share responsibility for their performance, whether they fail or succeed, it effectively reduces both stress and anxiety.

Millennials with fewer than 5 years of experience have the most to gain from this leadership model. Why? Because early in their careers, career progression is a top priority. By allowing your most promising young employees to take on more responsibility, you can satisfy their development needs without promoting them into roles they’re not quite ready for.

Putting your trust in someone who’s inexperienced can feel like a risky move, especially in a startup environment. By embracing joint leadership, you effectively reduce the risks while helping talented young employees grow into their potential.



We all want hungry employees. But when they become competitive, it can threaten the harmony of an organization’s culture. The truth is, startups can be very political places to work. From mid-level managers to executives, employees often compete with one another — and not just for sought-after resources.

Because every decision can affect the future of a small company, one employee’s actions can have a big impact. In this context, employees are motivated to maximize their influence. And because it’s peoples connections that often kickstart their careers, this effect is amplified when high-profile personalities are involved.

Hiring two people to manage one function can help eliminate these power struggles. In fact, the shift in language that accompanies joint leadership has a tremendous impact. For example, speaking in terms of “we” instead of “I” can instill a more team-oriented culture. That’s just one more reason why hiring more managers means having less conflict to manage.

A version of this article first appeared on Fast Company’s Leadership Section on August 17, 2016.

Jes Kirkwood is an inbound certified marketer and content creator with a passion for B2B SaaS. Her mission is to produce high-quality, data-driven content that educates prospects, nurtures leads, and keeps customers engaged — even after the sale. Follow her work (and her journey) on Twitter.