Staffing Management

Tips for Two at the Top

By Todd Henneman

Nov. 16, 2011

Few companies have co-chief executive officers. Human resources consultant Mercer found only 10 examples in its database of more than 300 companies. Before championing this management model, you may want to heed what’s helped others.

Have distinct, complementary skills. Think the abrasive and practical Gen. Leslie Richard Groves Jr. and the sensitive and philosophical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project, says J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University. Otherwise, the arrangement could deteriorate into a struggle for dominance.

Don’t upstage your counterpart. At Farmer Bros., only one of its two chief executives could sit on the board. Patrick Criteser agreed that the seat should go to Jeffrey Wahba. “It’s incumbent on me to treat him like we’re sharing the board seat and to make him feel like he’s got half that vote,” Wahba says.

Maintain a united front. At Primerica Inc., the senior leadership team reports jointly to the co-CEOs. “People know that to deal with an issue, particularly a big issue, they have to deal with the John aspect of it and they have to deal with the Rick aspect of it,” says co-CEO John Addison, who focuses on marketing while Rick Williams focuses on operations and finances. “They can’t come to either of us and say, ‘The other guy is being a twit.’ “

Build a relationship before sharing leadership. Entrepreneurs Russell D’Souza and Jack Groetzinger were friends at Dartmouth College before starting SeatGeek, a New York City-based company that forecasts ticket prices for sports and music events. “It’s really important that when you pick someone to work together, you know a lot about them,” D’Souza says. “You make the decision consciously, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the person in mind.”

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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