Who’s Your Boss?

From the C-suite to the middle level, executives are being given more multiple managers as firms reshuffle under the pandemic. Why that’s bad.

Cindy is a superstar talent. She consistently exceeds her performance targets. She’s reliable, and driven, and can be counted on to keep the team engaged and motivated. Her only issue: She’s got more than one manager. In fact, she has three.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, experts say it’s going to. Faced with staggering layoffs and other cost cuts, firms are divvying up executives’ top reports in ways never—or only very rarely—tried before. The result is more people finding themselves with comanagers or working on key projects headed up by different leaders. “It’s not an ideal setup,” says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader of organizational strategy and digital transformation.

Though still very rare as executives move up the chain, the introduction of co-CEOs at some firms puts even some C-suite members under this bind. All this on top of the stress that increased use of remote work has already created for workers trying to maintain ties to just one manager.

Under normal circumstance, of course, organizations try to design for simplicity and clarity and avoid any multiple managers. There may be some element of reporting to multiple managers on some projects and dotted lines to different leaders, but experts say that’s not what is going on here. “These setups are being foisted on managers because organizations haven’t had a chance to reorganize to catch up to the cost cutting,” says Blain.

He says along with reducing comanagement structures, it’s critical that C-suite leaders communicate to senior and frontline managers the importance of enterprise objectives over team goals. “If you don’t shift the mindset, resource sharing can create resentment among managers,” says Blain. For instance, the possibility for disputes among managers who aren’t willing to sacrifice team goals or have their objectives compromised is amplified as a result of the pandemic, where performance is already constrained and job security is tenuous. That's why it's important for all three sides to align on responsibilities and goals together. Performance conversations with managers can't be separate, Blaine says, because it could end up leaving the employee confused and pulled in different directions by competing objectives, from small things like attending meetings to big issues like balancing cutting costs for one manager and investing in innovation for another. 

To be sure, reporting to multiple managers is not an ideal situation for employees, with conflicting deadlines, management styles, and work assignments potentially leading to disengagement and demotivation. It could also end up hurting the employee's career growth if one manager feels like the other is being favored. And it isn't just junior employees that this can happen to—in some organizations even executive vice presidents are now reporting to multiple C-suite leaders. At the other end of the spectrum, however, working for multiple managers can help advance career goals. Having the agility to succeed in a dual reporting structure or stretch assignment can give the employee two advocates when it comes time for the next promotion or lateral move, experts say.

For their part, co-CEO setups have produced mixed results. William Simon, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader of the firm’s media and entertainment practice, says that organizations that use a co-CEO model often do so as a succession planning mechanism or for interim purposes until a permanent leader is named. The problem, however, is that once a permanent leader is appointed, the other executive usually ends up leaving the firm.

“These are high-powered people, and while these setups can maximize value to the enterprise, they are not always a slam dunk,” says Simon.