Aaron was hired a year ago by the board and the CEO of a manufacturer with the agreement that he would take over upon the CEO’s retirement in about 18 months. Since then, he’s learned the company’s financials are shakier than first represented, and significant product issues are hampering sales. The CEO, who feels responsible for the company’s situation, now seems to be balking at retirement and relinquishing his role to an outsider.   

Jake, the founder and CEO of a fast-growing technology company, hired a strong number two a year ago to bring operational and financial discipline. The COO has done this and more, but his approach has created friction between them. The CEO is uncertain his new number two understands the culture of the company. That’s why he remains involved in day to day operations, creating confusion about who makes decisions.       

Abigail recently lost a two-way insider race for CEO of a fashion retailer to a long-time peer she respects.  She started her career as a store clerk and manager, rose through the ranks and led the company’s main business through difficult times. The board asked her to stay on and gave her a new title with greater responsibilities, but she’s close in age to the new CEO, is being courted by recruiters, and may consider some offers.      

Common Challenges Between Number One and Number Two

These are three common scenarios that we’ve seen arise between number one and two leaders who find themselves needing to work together under difficult circumstances. All are aware of the importance of their partnership to the future of the company. Yet they feel privately frustrated about how to work together and bewildered about how to change the dynamic.    

It is not unusual even in the best of circumstances for a number one and number two to find a yawning gap in their relationship. As time goes on they notice that their views, styles, and ways of working are not always complementary, and that circumstances are making the dynamic of the relationship even more challenging. This is compounded by the fact that they have few people to consult outside of spouses and family members. That’s a lonely situation when the stakes are high.

While circumstances such as these certainly put pressure on business relationships, most issues lie within.  A number one and number two need to begin looking not at the pressures all around them, but at what’s happening between them.  If there are reasons to remain on for a period in their respective roles, or to build for the future, acknowledging what is happening between them is the first step to change. 

What’s at Stake? It’s More than a Relationship

If you’re in a high stakes business relationship such as this, you know that the risks to your career and your company are significant. It’s personally stressful and frustrating, which will have a significant impact on your health, well-being, and effectiveness as a leader. Distance between you and the other top leader are also more obvious than you realize, which creates a public impact. When people perceive your lack of alignment, they grow concerned. This can lead to issues with your board, investors, and shareholders. It can also have a negative impact on your team and employees and become a subject of conversation among customers and the media. While you may think you’ve kept it quiet, people are adept at reading these situations. 

Once others experience confusion and lack of alignment, the negativity can spiral. Your best people may start choosing sides or get tired of the tension and uncertainty and move on. This creates churn in the organization which can result in decision paralysis, organizational instability and slow progress toward your goals.  

Do You Need to be Superhuman?

Overcoming a business relationship issue like this may seem to require superhuman effort. No doubt the two of you have fallen into patterns that are hard to acknowledge and break. When a relationship isn’t working people typically avoid each other. Sometimes they get into the blame game, with side comments to trusted allies. This only make matters worse. 

These patterns can be broken. It does require both of you to acknowledge the situation, speak candidly, find common ground and new ways of working together. When you begin this process, it is difficult, and often painful. However, taking steps like this can reverse the dynamic, allow you to build trust and a create a great senior leader partnership. 

The Catalyst for Change

Jake and his number two finally got tired of going home every night frustrated and complaining to their spouses. As their advisors, we recommended the four of us get together for a few four-way meetings to explore what was happening and encourage a different conversation.

In the first meeting, they were able to open up about how they really felt, and to provide examples to one another. We utilized a practice in mediation of having each of them acknowledge and repeat what the other had said. This was the first breakthrough. It led each to learn things about one another they’d not learned in a year.

Though they had strong and different opinions on several current business matters, they realized that they each had a genuine desire to make it work. They were both in it for the long haul to grow the company. They began changing how they handled the block and tackle of their communication. They acknowledged they needed a better way of making decisions.  They increased the frequency of their meetings, what they talked about, and began a deeper conversation about how they viewed their roles.   

A Stumbling Block: Role Clarity

stumble_iStock-526764641Role clarity should be simple when you have a job title such as CEO or COO, but it isn’t. The sheer magnitude of the roles and the changing nature of business creates gray areas about who should do what. The job description rarely scratches the surface of what needs to be done or who should handle new issues as they emerge. Many decisions must be made together. And, as circumstances change, the number one and number two need to be agile in their approach.

As COO, Aaron came into the company with the expectation he would be groomed to take over all aspects of company operations. Instead, because of financial instability and product issues, the CEO assigned him to go “save” one of the businesses. Aaron was resentful, thinking of this as a demotion, since the business had a president. He was no longer participating in all enterprise-level meetings and decision making. He had begun to wonder whether he should cut his losses and look for another position.

Aaron and his CEO sat down together and talked about what was happening and why. The CEO realized that his urgency to fix what was broken had caused him to isolate his would-be successor in an assignment that felt to Aaron like a test. We guided them to consider their respective roles and how they could turn around the business while enabling Aaron to be involved at the enterprise level. This gave the CEO a better path to test Aaron’s thinking and become more confident of his capabilities.

Failure to Tackle Issues Head On

As the saying goes, only wine gets better with time. Issues between people do not. Business relationships, like marriages, are work. Though misunderstandings can start small, they often snowball. Unresolved conflict saps energy and brings progress to a halt. 

Abigail and her CEO had such a long history together that when the succession decision was made, it was difficult for both to acknowledge things had changed between them for the worse. Naturally, Abigail was deeply disappointed she hadn’t been tapped for the top job, but the new CEO had stopped talking with her about strategic issues, primarily in his haste to get off to a great start and establish autonomy.

The important conversation that had to take place was whether and how Abigail had a role to play and for how long. Through candid discussion, the CEO was able to admit concerns Abigail didn’t know about; there were some urgent business transactions that could fail without her help.   

Getting Back on Track

railroad tracksiStock-503393522Our approach was to suggest a restart to the relationship, encouraging them to be open about where a partnership made sense. The CEO asked Abigail to remain for a year to lead a major retail acquisition. We helped them establish a way to discuss issues more easily. They created shared expectations and timelines, so that the CEO could move the company forward while positioning Abigail to be successful.  This would eventually position her as a CEO candidate elsewhere.

Among the approaches we took was to encourage them to ask each other better questions when meeting. We asked them not to rely on assumptions, but rather, to really listen and be curious about one another’s views. This was the foundation for building trust in a relationship that had changed. Though it was difficult to have the initial conversation, they built a stronger partnership, eliminated a lot of stress, spent more quality time together, and got on the road to doing what was best for the company as well as their own careers.   

It’s Like a Marriage

Just like a marriage, a partnership between a number one and number two is complex and personal. You come into the relationship either as long-time colleagues or new acquaintances, with different backgrounds, experiences, personalities, and viewpoints. The alchemy between you is created when you learn to value each other and recast your differences as complementary talents.   

How do number one and twos become a dynamic duo? Very often it requires coming at the partnership with fresh eyes and agreeing on why it matters to get it right. Transforming the relationship into something positive and powerful allows you to enjoy your work, find greater meaning, and lead the company to new levels of success. Your complementary ways of working can make you greater than the sum of your individual talents.

Common Misconceptions that Impede the One and Two Relationship

Conflict is a bad thing

A common misconception among number ones and twos is that the best relationships experience relatively little conflict. In fact, the sign of a healthy relationship is healthy conflict. You achieve this through candor and courage that leaves nothing important unsaid, forging a path toward productive debate and leading to better decisions.  

Our roles are clear because of our titles

Whatever the organizational chart and your bios say, your jobs can and will overlap and evolve. Matters can also fall between you. The only way to set clear expectations is to establish what you will each do beyond the job description, and then to keep up. Talk over responsibilities as circumstances change.   

The buck stops at the top

Though the COO is number two and reports to the CEO, he or she is also often in charge of daily operations and in that capacity assumes this means owning decision rights. COOs may assume they have authority when a CEO expects to make some of those decisions or at least be consulted. Decision rights need to be clarified so you are aligned on who needs to be consulted, and who has the “D.”

Strategies for Building an Enviable Business Relationship

Whatever the circumstance, trust is the key to success. Trust isn’t attained; it’s something you build, attend to, and nurture. Here are some strategies for fostering the kind of trust required at the senior executive level.

  • Value radical candor. Be open and transparent in your interactions. This requires courage and a commitment to speaking openly and truthfully, not assuming that silence is agreement. Be willing to have the debate and make it safe to disagree.
  • Assume best intent. Start the conversation with a calm demeanor and an assumption that the other person was trying to do the right thing. Be reluctant to judge until the facts are on the table. Though you disagree, find common ground and work from there.
  • Identify the problem to solve. Very often the fight gets heated when you haven’t first established what is wrong and needs to be fixed. Writing down the problem to be solved can instantly change the conversation and get you talking about criteria for a solution.
  • Get to a deeper level. Many number ones and number twos rarely meet long enough to have a deep discussion at the personal or professional level.  Set aside time on your calendar for activities together and avoid always having brief, transactional conversations.
  • Be curious. Ask each other questions with a curious mindset. As experienced leaders you each have a great deal to learn from one another, and two brains are better than one.
  • Identify the gray area. When it isn’t obvious who should handle it, talk about it. As number one, give your number two opportunities to rise to the occasion.  As number two, make it a practice to keep the CEO informed.
  • Never make it “my idea or yours.” Partner by thinking through complexity together and acknowledging that opposing ideas can both contain truths. The debate should never be who is right, but what is the best solution. Balance urgency with the importance of getting it right. 

Whether you need to make the relationship work for a period of months or years, it is well worth the effort to be a great number one and two together. Your board, shareholders, investors, employees and customers are counting on you to join forces, align, and drive results.  And it is far more personally satisfying to work in partnership to make work more meaningful and create the extraordinary together.




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