Food For Thought
Working With Alligators
Dave Farrell Responds:
I can’t resist the temptation to begin by quoting the immediate reaction of those colleagues with whom I shared the question; namely “Just don’t do it.” I’m assuming that’s not an option. If it were, this would be the shortest column in AQP history.
Rarely have I been presented with a question for which I was more reluctant to offer suggestions without further information. Effective approaches to implementing the co-president leadership model are highly dependent on a number of variables: the past history and relationships of the parties themselves, alignment (or at least compatibility) of their management style, philosophy, values and goals; their relative egos; the relationships between the organizations they previously led; the esteem with which they are held by their people; and the existence and effectiveness of a board of directors, to name a few.
Approaches to minimize the risks inherent in this leadership model can be categorized into behavioral and structural and they focus either on the relationship between the two principals, or the relationship between both and the balance of the organization — upward (with the board) and downward (with the staff.)
Clearly, decision making is one of the most troublesome potential problems. Creation of a dyad (a 2-person unit) sets up the potential for stalemates, significantly impacting the organization’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to internal or external challenges or opportunities. It is essential that the parties have a high level of agreement about, and commitment to, the decision-making process itself. There must be a clear understanding about how differences of opinion will be resolved. One of the options includes bringing a third party into the process when necessary to prevent an impasse. The tie-breaking party could be another member of the executive team, an external arbiter, a member of the board of directors, or perhaps the entire board. Each of these alternatives sets up dynamics which in and of themselves are far from ideal, but are better than ongoing organizational paralysis.
The role of the board of directors in this situation is critical. The board members must be even-handed in their relationship with both executives if the co-president structure is to have a chance of succeeding. There can be no favoritism and the board must be a party to the agreed-upon decision-making process. In my experience with governance of health care organizations, the structure having the greatest chance of success is a triad, with balanced representation from the medical staff, administration and the community. A board so structured is more likely to provide the necessary support for a co-presidency model than one which has less balanced representation.
The board of directors also has the opportunity to exercise their role in managing the performance of the two presidents by tying compensation to their collaboration and synergy in addition to traditional measures of organizational performance.
It is not clear from the question
whether the co-presidents will have identical roles and
responsibilities. It should be noted that titles are not
the same as job descriptions. One alternative to having
both incumbents in identical jobs is to have each carry
the title of president, but clearly distinguish their
respective roles. Each can be responsible for a different
set of executive tasks, capitalizing on their unique
skills and contributions and minimizing areas of
potential conflict. A useful analogy is that of
successful job sharing, in which two people combine,
usually with part-time schedules, to fill one job. These
arrangements work best when each person focuses on that
aspect of the total job for which they are most
qualified. Only then can the job sharing approach realize
its potential for synergy, with the two accomplishing
more together than each could separately.
If it has not been done already, the two need to discuss with total candor their goals and vision, both personal and organizational, and their values and management styles. While it is neither likely, nor required, that these factors be the same, it is crucial that they can be brought into reasonable alignment, or at a minimum that conflicts in these management fundamentals be identified and addressed effectively. A facilitated session, either with the two, or including the board, should be used to raise and resolve these issues.
Obviously this arrangement will
require an extraordinary level of ongoing communications
between the two, and clear, frequent and shared
communications with the rest of the organization. Ground
rules for communications must be established early and
time set aside to assure that daily distractions are not
allowed to get in the way.