What makes co-chairing work
- Have a shared vision and shared values
- Build trust by allowing complementary skills to shine
- Divide some roles and alternate others, including chairing board meetings
- Share an executive assistant as a single front door for staff and stakeholders
- Communicate every day with each other online and by phone
- If you disagree, set a strategy to seek more information and discuss again
Engineers Kerryn Coker GAICD and Kate West MAICD knew they were on the same page from their first Arup board meeting. This was well before they pitched the idea to co- chair the Australasian board of the London-based global professional services company, which operates in all aspects of the built environment including architecture, engineering, planning and design, and employs more than 16,000 staff across 30 countries.
“It was in 2019, and I remember there was an opening with one of the portfolios [areas of responsibility] and there was a question of who might take this on,” says Coker. “Kate and I had separately been told, ‘Don’t put your hand up for a portfolio at your very first board meeting’. So, at our first board meeting Peter [Chamley MAICD], the chair, was looking at the two of us saying, ‘Well, will either of you consider it?’ Given it was the sustainable development portfolio — a personal passion of mine — it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. It was clear Kate and I were taking the same approach from that very first board meeting.”
Two years later, the pair were again in unison when Chamley approached them individually to test their interest in applying to chair the 10-member Australasian board. It was then they decided — inspired by Atlassian co-founders and co-CEOs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar — to only take on the responsibility if they could perform the role together.
“We said, ‘If either of us just wanted to do it by ourselves, then just do that’,” says West. “The more we talked about it, we realised co-chairing was the only way we wanted to apply. We tested the idea and the feedback from other chairs was just how lonely they had found the role. We realised there’s so much strength in us doing it together, so we wrote our application together.”
Coker believes that the unusual idea spoke to the challenges that many businesses face. “As the world gets more complex, the amount to do as a chair is almost limitless to meet broad and complex demands including COVID-19, climate change and digital disruption,” she says. “We discussed if it was reasonable and realistic to expect that one person could be across the needs of the role at this point in time.”
Both say an absence of ego and a commitment to shared values — especially as Arup steps up its commitment to sustainable development — has helped them shape the role. The two lead more than 2500 people across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Fellow board member Murray Kretschmer replaced Bruce Tanner as chief operating officer in April.
When they were testing the idea of co-chairing, people would ask why they wanted to share the task — why they wouldn’t each prefer to manage the role on their own?
“If anything, the idea of the lone leader was unappealing to both of us,” says Coker.
West adds that “picking the right partner” and putting time into the role design were crucial.
West, a civil engineer who studied architecture at Cambridge University in England, is based in Perth and has a focus on new business, including a renewable green hydrogen industry in WA.
Coker has a background in facade engineering and is driving Arup’s push for sustainable development. She led its award-winning work on 1 Bligh Street, a 30-storey Sydney office block that established a benchmark for sustainability and innovation in high-rise development in Australia in 2011. It was the first office tower in Sydney to achieve a six-star Green Star design rating.
Arup has adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as its framework for articulating what a sustainable future will look like in 2030. Coker says this means that globally, the organisation is changing practices to consistently consider incorporating sustainability principles in all of its decision-making — as well as projects including embodied carbon (all the CO2 that is emitted in producing materials) and the circular economy.
“The more we talked about it, we realised co-chairing was the only way we wanted to apply... We realised there’s so much strength in us doing it together, so we wrote our application together.”
Making it work
Operationally, the pair share an executive assistant who acts as a single “front door”. The trio communicate continuously through Teams Chat. They have contact with staff through regular town hall meetings and emails, plus the regular Let’s Talk podcast. This helps staff get to know the co-chairs, who chat about industry developments, interview guests and finish with a “What are you up to this weekend?” spot.
The pair have agreed to alternate the chairing function at the region’s six two-day board meetings each year. “Because our region stretches from New Zealand and Australia to Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, it’s useful that Perth aligns with South- East Asian time zones,” says Coker, who sits on the global management board, led from the UK. “Being able to share the load in attending meetings across multiple time zones is another great benefit.”
“Without needing to be across all the detail, having a high level of awareness of what each of us is doing helps ensure we aren’t duplicating efforts,” says West.
In June, they announced a flexible work initiative — Work Unbound — that encourages staff to work three days in the office and two days flexible in the office or at home, COVID-19 permitting. “It’s about making sure that our people have the flexibility to work in different ways that suit their life and the feedback has been great,” says West.
Building trust was something Coker and West identified as paramount. “We are ultimately sharing the accountability for the performance of the region and for the welfare of our people in the region,” says Coker. “You do need to be clear about which of us is talking to which leaders in our region and making sure that one of us is having those key conversations. We don’t want to end up in a situation where somebody is coming to one of us and getting answer A and coming to the other for answer B.”
COVID-19 has meant the pair have met in person just twice since they applied for the role together late last year. “Certainly, it’s not a job share, it’s not a job split — it’s a hybrid option where we have shared accountability for the region, but really targeted individual responsibility for specific areas aligned with the pillars of our region’s strategic plan,” says West.
Coker believes other benefits have flowed from the decision. “As co-chairs, we lead in a deeply collaborative, radically inclusive way, bringing a style of leadership that role models new and different ways of leading and working,” she says. “We can already see this approach encouraging a transparent, inclusive, less hierarchical environment at board level and with our leaders in the business. The discussions are more free- flowing. As far as good governance goes, no amount of policies or oversight committees can be effective if the internal culture is not healthy with shared, lived values.”
Sustainable for the future
Like many organisations, Arup is facing the challenge of having to speed up its sustainability and digital transformation — and the greater leadership capacity enables Coker and West to assist in driving these key areas.
Arup’s 2020 annual report begins with a commitment to reducing its global carbon footprint to net zero by 2030, and improving gender diversity. In Australasia, 43 per cent of Arup’s employees are women — 26 per cent of those in leadership positions.
It’s a reflection of the approach of the firm’s founder, Englishman Sir Ove Arup, design engineer on the Sydney Opera House (1957–73). When Arup set up the company in 1946, he outlined six aims to guide the firm in dealing with people and projects — the quality of work, total architecture, humane organisation, straight and honourable dealings, social usefulness, reasonable prosperity of its members. Since 1977, the company has been owned in trust by its employees.