Does every company need a Steve Jobs — someone who will mold the organization to his or her unique vision? Even in less iconic organizations than Apple, it’s assumed that the CEO should be the boss. But some companies are finding success with an alternative model called paired leadership, in which top managers work in pairs.
In the Harvard Business Review, management consultants Stephen A. Miles and Michael D. Watkins write, “Such teams by their very nature are able to do things that individuals and noncomplementary teams can’t.”
Fishbowl is a company that’s taken the paired leadership concept further than most. The maker of inventory software, founded in 2001, has a structure where all of the managers work in pairs, including the CEO and president.
The experiment began with the company’s adoption of agile programming, a software development methodology also known as extreme programming or scrum. This development method lets companies create software products faster using an iterative process in which requirements, design and architecture develop along with the actual code. One agile technique that Fishbowl adopted is pair programming, where two programmers write code together at the same workstation.
Before the shift, Fishbowl found that its programmers at times resented the product manager for setting unrealistic goals, and schedules frequently slipped. So, as part of the agile overhaul, Fishbowl CEO David Williams took the pairing a step further and installed one product manager and one technical lead as joint leaders of the product development department.
With agile programming, Williams says, “We saw what used to take six month go to six weeks – and it was better. And it eliminated all those traditional [tensions] that happen in a software shop.”
Dual leadership of the product department went so well that in 2007 Williams decided to institute paired leadership throughout the organization. Each department is now led by two “captains,” and in 2011, Williams hired Mary Michelle Scott as president. Although Williams and Scott bear traditional titles that imply traditional hierarchy, Williams insists that they make all strategic decisions together.
“Mary has equal voice to me; I never trump her,” he says.
The two have separate offices and play different operational roles, consulting with each other frequently as they execute. Two heads – especially ones with different backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints – are definitely better than one, Williams says.
For example, Fishbowl had a long-standing value-added reseller (VAR) program in place. Most were sole proprietors, and most simply referred customization jobs back to Fishbowl, adding approximately 10 percent to its annual bottom line.
“When Mary came on,” Williams recalls, “she said, ‘You don’t actually have a VAR program. VARs go out and buy the software and resell it. You should really call it a referral program – and you don’t need to pay someone 35 percent when you do all the work and close the business.'”
Williams was very attached to his VARs, so it took a few months before he saw that Scott was right. They then reworked the program – with little distress to the so-called VARs. Now, as a referral program, it constitutes some 25 percent of annual revenue while Fishbowl pays out to the referrers a third of what it did before.
“She came in and was strong enough to stand her ground but open enough to listen to my point of view,” Williams says.
That statement illuminates a crucial point about the leadership skills necessary to make paired leadership succeed. Two complementary leaders by definition have different strengths, so they may have difficulty aligning their vision. And co-leaders need to park their egos in the parking lot.
In fact, the same personality traits and interpersonal skills that make for a happy marriage or a solid friendship are also vital leadership skills in this business structure.
“This takes high trust, high touch, and a leader who has faith and belief in their people, to show up and show that you believe in them,” Williams says.
It’s paying off for Fishbowl, with revenues growing from $5 million to $20 million over the last five years.
Williams details the traits, including gratitude, trust and respect, that he believes have been crucial to his company’s success in the paired leadership experiment — and in business in general — in a new book, The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results.
Taking the plunge
Williams says it’s best to begin a move to paired leadership with a single pair. That could be yoking two people together to lead a department – or it could start at the top. When the CEO demonstrates the commitment and value of working with a coequal, it’s easier to get buy-in from the ranks.
It’s important to give the experiment enough time to blossom, because paired leaders need to adjust and synch up before productivity increases. Says Williams, “Be assertive on setting the pace by your example, and you’ll see some magical things happen.”Comments