Who’s Your Boss?

From the C-suite to the mid-level, executives are being assigned multiple managers more often as firms reshuffle under the pandemic. Why that could be 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. It leaves executives with unsure priorities and missed deadlines as they try to navigate often opposing management styles. “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 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.