Organizational Effectiveness: CEO Polygamy

A recent piece in HBR asks, “Is CEO a Two-Person Job?” I didn’t think so when I wrote this, and I still don’t. 

I am impressed and appreciative of the relationship that these two leaders have developed but wouldn’t try to duplicate this arrangement unless you have an existing mind-meld, glued-at-the-hip, soulmate relationship going that can survive not only the challenges of running a business but also the challenges of marriage (currently a 50% failure rate).

The premise of this article, as you might imagine from the title, is that there is too much to do for one person to be CEO. It depends upon how the job is structured. I’ve seen CEOs of good size companies who have structured their job so that they have very few tasks to accomplish and spend a good deal of their time wandering about, deflecting blame. I’ve seen others who act like they snort cocaine in the parking garage before work and operate (usually poorly) at a feverish pace, fretting over details and trying to control everything in their sight. Neither is a good idea. With some good thought, the job of CEO can be structured like Goldilocks’ porridge; not too little, not too much.

Talented CEOs are no longer of the “command and control” variety like your father worked for. They are typically very inclusive and collaborate with their team on most big issues. One person at the top does not imply that they are the smartest person in the room. It does not imply that they alone decide on direction (e.g. vision and strategy) of the company or that they alone are the face of success and failure. 

There is an exception to every rule, but have you frequently seen job-sharing work for Presidents, Prime Ministers or Monarchs? Does your city have co-mayors or co-police chiefs? How about military leaders? Does your children’s’ school have co-principles? Your favorite high-end restaurant probably has one head chef, right? Watching any football? Do you see many co-head coaches?

My list of reasons for one person with ultimate authority and accountability is part psychological but mostly pragmatic. I am also a product of my experiences and having shared a management position at one point early in my career and watched other organizations try it has given me enough empirical evidence to call bullshit when people try it. It is usually because a board (or company owners) cannot make a tough decision.

Here are some of my reasons for a single CEO:

If you have two people who own a leadership position, people are confused. At very least they have to think, “Do I go to Tom or Harry with this issue?” which slows them down. If you have someone slightly devious on staff, they know that they can appeal to both—like your kid going to Mom and Dad with a request for candy—to look for a “yes.”

If you share your CEO job, you’ll get the benefit of additional input, but you’ll also spend an inordinate amount of time coordinating with your “partner.” You can always make another buck, but you can’t make another minute. How many do you want to spend getting agreement before you do what you know is right? What happens when there is disagreement about this? Do you flip a coin?

Even with brilliant coordination, something gets dropped. “I thought that you were going to finalize that deal in Germany?!” If I am one of your board members or investors, I am not going to be happy about this!

What do you do about succession planning? If one of the CEOs gets hit by the beer truck do you fire the remaining one as she is only half of the equation?

If two CEOs is good, would three be better yet? If there are two CEOs then surely you should also have two CMOs, two CTOs, two CFOs, etc., right?

Once in a great while, the soulmate, mind-meld situation might exist in nature and perhaps a company will be better off for a short time if there are two leaders. Once in a great while you might survive a lightning strike, but that doesn’t mean you should purposefully plan golf outings in a thunderstorm.

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  • Brent Abrahm

    11:17 am September 22, 2020

    100% agree. Tried it before the other way and Todd is right on point. Don’t take the job unless you are good knowing you are solely responsible for the decisions moving the company forward.

    • Todd Ordal

      11:12 am November 9, 2020

      Thanks, Brent!